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Was Netanyahu breaking the law – and is Israel on the 'brink of anarchy'?

Drama, shouting in Cabinet meeting as Netanyahu pushes through a vote on justice minister, then reneges the following day

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference on April 20, 2021. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

High drama, shouting and a potential violation of law dominated a Knesset Cabinet meeting on Tuesday prompting one Israeli news anchor to describe the events as somewhere between a kindergarten and a psychiatric ward.

“The brink of an abyss of anarchy,” Yamina leader Naftali Bennett declared.

“Insane,” New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has less than one week to form a government – and chances are high he will fail – but that was far from the headlines yesterday. Instead, he staged a vote for his choice of a new justice minister in what the attorney general and opposition leaders charged was rife with illegality.

“In today’s cabinet meeting, the prime minister made a premeditated attempt to trample on the rule of law,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said afterwards.

Gantz said Netanyahu tried to manipulate and silence the attorney general while “undermining democratic principles.”

During the Cabinet meeting, which descended into chaos, Gantz accused Netanyahu of playing games.

“The vote I am bringing is illegal? That’s absurd,” Netanyahu retorted.

Senior journalists and politicos said they have never witnessed such behavior in the Knesset during their careers.

Netanyahu backed down on Wednesday afternoon and reversed his appointment, giving the nod to Gantz instead and causing the attorney general to cancel a petition in the Supreme Court.

“After his compromise offers were once again rejected this morning, and to exit the dead end and enable the necessary activity of the Justice Ministry, the prime minister has decided to appoint Benny Gantz as Justice Minister in a transitional government,” the Prime Minister Office said in a statement.

What is the potential fallout?

If nothing else, Netanyahu’s questionable actions may have driven together the opposition parties which immediately rained down criticism and accused Netanyahu of using his office to preserve his self interests.

“The delusional saga in the cabinet meeting proves there is an urgent need to replace the government,” Sa’ar said.

Bennet said “Israel is on the brink of anarchy and a functioning government must be formed."

“Anyone who might have been considering signing some sort of agreement with Netanyahu just got a reminder that there’s no chance whatsoever that he’ll carry out his part in any agreement,” said Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. “He just isn’t capable of not cheating.”

Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, echoed that message.

“Netanyahu has violated our agreement time and time again, and he will do the same with any other agreement. His word means nothing and his personal considerations overshadow any other consideration,” he said.

If you’ve been following Israeli politics since the March 23 election, you may have whiplash from all the back-and-forth and potential coalition building. In his effort to form a government, Netanyahu has run the gamut recruiting from right-wing extremists to religious Muslims. None of this has worked out, yet, and he was also rumored to be reaching out this week to other parties that he previously slammed.

The parties that comprise the “change bloc” include the centrist Yesh Atid party with 17 seats and smaller right-wing parties such as New Hope and Yamina. They have been trying to muster enough seats, at least 61, and overcome ideological differences in order to form an anti-Bibi government –and are hoping for the chance to do so after Netanyahu’s May 2 deadline.

What exactly happened?

The appointment of a justice minister, a position vacant since April 1, is of utmost concern not the least of which is because Netanyahu himself has been indicted and is currently standing trial for corruption, bribery and fraud charges.

The vacancy has caused a ripple effect of other urgent issues since only the justice minister can permit prisoners to attend court hearings via video conference rather than in person, which has become a necessity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Also, a justice minister will be needed to appoint a new attorney general when the current AG's term expires in a few months.

Gantz took over the position from a former Blue and White member who joined another party ahead of the last election. When the term expired, Netanyahu dragged his feet filling the position saying it was unnecessary to have an “artificial” permanent minister during a transitional government.

But the Supreme Court disagreed and gave the Cabinet 48 hours to appoint a justice minister.

This brings us to yesterday when Gantz brought it up for a vote yesterday, nominating himself. Along party lines, Blue and White voted for Gantz while Likud voted against him, 10 to 17.

Netanyahu then immediately – and surprisingly – turned around nominated Ofir Akunis, a Likud minister who is loyal to the prime minister.

Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit objected noting the previous coalition agreement which stipulates that the justice minister be from the Blue and White Party.

Likud ministers argued that since the previous government collapsed, they are not bound by those agreements.

When Netanyahu pushed ahead, all the Likud ministers voted in favor of appointing Akunis while Blue and White members abstained.

Mandelblit immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, which froze the appointment and will take up the matter today.

The hearing was canceled after Netanyahu decided to go forward with Gantz' appointment.

But in yet another oddity in this saga, Netanyahu had obtained a private attorney to argue this case rather than use the attorney general – who clearly disagrees with him – to argue his case.

Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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