Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz will become Justice Minister of Israel’s transitional government, after a dramatic showdown with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that some commentators said brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
The appointment of a Justice Chief was a major point of contention between Netanyahu and Gantz, the latter of whom currently serves as Alternate Premier and Defense Minister. Gantz previously served as Justice Minister on an interim basis until April of this year.
The two leaders agreed to form a national unity government after Israel’s third election last May after the March 2020 election; in a fragile coalition aimed at healing rifts after three previous non-conclusive elections amid the then-burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. Those attempts failed, leading to fourth national election last month. Netanyahu, who was tasked with forming the country’s 36th government, has until next Tuesday to form a ruling coalition before requesting an extension.
During a heated cabinet vote on Tuesday, Netanyahu pushed the appointment of current Minister of Regional Cooperation and member of his own Likud party Ofir Akunis as Justice Minister.
That move was later disqualified as illegal by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said it violated both the coalition agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu and the Basic Law on Government. “The cabinet knowingly and intentionally acted in an illegal manner,” the top legal official later wrote in a a letter to both Netanyahu and Gantz.
The High Court of Justice then froze the appointment, with President Esther Hayut ruling that, “Minister Ofir Akunis cannot serve in the role of justice minister until the court rules otherwise.” An urgent hearing on the matter slated to be held yesterday afternoon was cancelled in the wake of the Premier’s concession.
President Reuven Rivlin harshly criticized the cabinet for its handling of the appointment, saying that “It has been a long while that we’ve been living with the illusion of a constitutionally functioning [state] between one election cycle and the next.”
Local media were merciless in their coverage of the incident. “Likud officials fear Netanyahu’s latest antics have killed coalition chances,” read the Ynet headline, while the Jerusalem Post wrote: “Netanyahu blinks, finally makes Gantz justice minister.” The Times of Israel and Haaretz went even further, with headlines reading “Mandelblit: Cabinet knowingly and deliberately acted in an illegal manner” and “Netanyahu Caves After Rebuke From Supreme Court: Gantz Appointed Justice Minister” respectively.
In an address broadcast to his faction Tuesday night, Gantz accused Netanyahu of making “a premeditated attempt to trample on the rule of law” through “his attempt to call a vote, using illegal manipulation, to silence the attorney general and violate the equality principle enshrined in law” while “undermining democratic principles” under “the guise of a cabinet meeting.”
Referencing Netanyahu’s ongoing prosecution on three separate cases including bribery, Gantz went on to say, “For a year now, Blue and White has stood up to these types of attempts and has prevented a person facing serious criminal charges from harming and controlling the apparatus responsible for the rule of law. We have done so throughout and will continue to do so, until an upstanding government is in place… The prime minister’s aggressive and illegal tactics need to be stopped now.”
He then called upon Knesset lawmakers to join a pro-change government, saying: “This is what the moment demands of us…. this is what the moment demands of us, to get beyond our differences. Israel needs a devoted national government that protects the fundamentals of democracy above all else, those same fundamentals that Netanyahu is currently trying to undermine.”
Netanyahu’s office issued a statement maintaining that he decided on the Gantz appointment after the rejection of his own “proposals for a compromise” and “in order to get out of the deadlock and allow the necessary activities of the Justice Ministry to resume,” adding that he “submitted a detailed response to the High Court that completely rejects the argument that yesterday’s vote in the cabinet was against the law.”
Netanyahu also informed the High Court that he intends to fill the remaining ministerial vacancies – including the science, social equality, communications, water and higher education portfolios – in a cabinet session next Sunday.
“Netanyahu understood that he had made a serious and illegal mistake when he abruptly brought up Akunis as a candidate for justice minister, despite the disagreement in the cabinet,” said a statement from The Movement for Quality Government, which had joined other groups in petitioning the High Court against the move. “It is a shame that Netanyahu is acting right only when his back is against the wall and he has no choice but to fold. This is how a circus is run and not a government,” added the NGO’s statement.