The government convened on Tuesday for a zoom debate on the appointment of a new justice minister, a position that had been vacant for several months, in violation of the law.
A week ago, some three weeks after Benny Gantz’s temporary appointment as justice minister had expired, the High Court informed the government that it must appoint a person to the position immediately. So far, Supreme Court justices had refused to intervene in matters related to the governmental crisis, but now they decided to express their opinion. According to the High Court ruling, the state had to explain why there was no new appointment for justice minister, regardless of Netanyahu’s disinclination to make Gantz’s post at Justice permanent.
The court was adamant on this issue because without a justice minister today prisoners and detainees are required to come to court physically and are no longer allowed to attend hearings via video calls since only the justice minister has the authority to approve Zoom court hearings. Which is why the Attorney General called the absence of a justice minister a “health hazard.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz for a 48-hour postponement in order to reach an agreement on a candidate for Justice, and Gantz initially agreed but later backed down and demanded an immediate vote on his own appointment to the post (the last justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, did belong to Gantz’s Blue & White faction).
Gantz’s appointment as justice minister went up for a vote and fell with 10 in favor and 17 against. Immediately afterward, Netanyahu introduced Ofir Akunis’s candidacy for the Justice portfolio, even though this item had not been on the agenda for the day, and despite the vocal opposition of Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Netanyahu simply informed Gantz: “You can oppose it as much as you want, we’re voting – let’s go ahead.”
The Blue&White ministers demanded that government secretary Tzachi Braverman not bring up the Akunis appointment for a vote, but Braverman replied: “I am subject to law, procedure, and custom. The prime minister is chairing the meeting and I am subordinate to him first.”
Mandelblit also demanded that Braverman not introduce the vote and announced angrily: “I suggest that the government secretary act in accordance with the law.”
At this point, Netanyahu denied Mandelblit the right to speak until after the vote.
The attorney general threatened: “Don’t think for one moment that this vote will pass.”
Despite this, the ministers voted for Akunis’s appointment by a majority of 17 to 7 with 3 not participating.
Immediately upon the announcement of Akunis’s appointment, Mandelblit was given the right to speak and announced that the vote was illegal: “Once the alternate prime minister has asked not to put it on the agenda, there is an obligation not to do it – because a prior agreement is needed between the prime minister and the alternate prime minister. The vote is illegal, it should not have taken place.”
Netanyahu teased Mandelblit, saying: “No one understands his explanations.” The AG replied: “The High Court will understand, don’t worry,” and added: “What happened here was wrong, it was wrong that I was not allowed to speak. You made an illegal vote against the AG – an unprecedented thing.” Mandelblit concluded: “Minister Akunis is not Israel’s Justice Minister.”
The Supreme Court held a hearing immediately afterward on Tuesday night regarding the appointment of Ofir Akunis as Justice Minister, where Mandelblit reiterated his claim that the appointment was illegal and invalid. He called on the justices to issue an order requiring the government to appoint another justice minister immediately.
The panel of justices headed by Court President Esther Hayut, with Justices Neil Handel and Uzi Vogelman, issued an interim order freezing the appointment of Akunis as Justice Minister. They announced: “For the sake of caution, an interim order is hereby issued instructing that Minister Ofir Akunis will not begin to serve as Minister of Justice until a different decision is handed down by this Court.”
The continuation of that hearing will take place on Wednesday at 3:30 PM.
The Israeli media immediately declared a constitutional crisis following the confrontations within the government and between one faction in the cabinet and the Supreme Court. But what is a constitutional crisis in Israel, a country that has no constitution? When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knowingly puts an illegal proposal to a vote, is it a constitutional crisis? And what if the entire appointment was merely a subliminal message from Netanyahu to his big rival on the right, Gideon Sa’ar that Bibi is on the path to challenging and reforming the High Court – is this a declaration of a constitutional crisis?
The source of the problem is in the parity-government agreement signed by Netanyahu and Gantz last year, to avoid fourth elections (which were eventually announced and held). A parity government is in fact two separate governments, and it relies on the rotation mechanism. In such a government, the partners agree to ignore the numerical differences between them and undertake to act equally in terms of the number of ministries each will receive, and in any case in terms of the votes in the cabinet meetings.
The Netanyahu-Gantz government actually has two prime ministers, one today and the other later (the so-called rotation). Therefore, when Prime Minister Gantz opposes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s intent to submit a proposal, the latter is barred by law from submitting it.
Attorney General Mandelblit, therefore, protested Netanyahu’s insistence on ignoring the opposition of his equal rights partner Gantz.
Netanyahu is currently playing a very dangerous game, probably because he understands that he has no choice. Presumably, next Tuesday at midnight, Netanyahu will be forced to return the mandate to form a government to President Rivlin, who will probably give it to Yair Lapid.
Lapid, for his part, will also be forced to use the parity-government model, and will probably grant full equality to at least two right-wing parties—Yamina and New Hope—that have only 13 seats in the Knesset. Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar demand a number of portfolios equal to all the portfolios of the left-wing parties and Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu so that they would be able to maintain a pro-right policy for the Lapid-led government.
Bennett will also insist on serving as the prime minister in rotation, for one or two years, with himself appointed first.
Is this a frog too big for Lapid and the left-wing parties to swallow? Maybe, but voices on the left are urging their representatives to give Bennett everything he wants as long as they get rid of Netanyahu.
In the end, if Lapid also fails to form a government, President Rivlin will transfer the mandate to the Knesset and then no one knows what will happen. I hope that the right will regain its sanity and stand behind a Likud candidate other than Netanyahu. Then Bennett, Sa’ar, Bezalel Smutrich (Religious Zionism), and the two Haredi parties will join forces in a 65-member strong right-wing government.
The Justice Minister bout will resume Wednesday afternoon in the Supreme Court.