Netanyahu Cabinet Choice Has Criminal Convictions, Delaying a Government

JERUSALEM — When Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc won a parliamentary majority in a general election on Nov. 1, his allies told reporters that he hoped to seal a formal coalition within two weeks.

But on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu received another 10 days to try to form a government because he is still negotiating with his partners, who among other things want to shepherd in a new law that would allow people who have been given suspended jail sentences to become cabinet ministers.

That law would allow Aryeh Deri — a key Netanyahu ally recently convicted of tax fraud — to hold three ministerial positions, including the important position of interior minister. That would pave the way for Mr. Netanyahu to finally form the government.

Mr. Netanyahu is set to miss a deadline on Sunday to form that government, a likelihood that on Friday led Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, to grant Mr. Netanyahu his request for extra time to complete his coalition negotiations.

Analysts still reckon Mr. Netanyahu is almost certain to return to power: He has sealed initial agreements with most of the far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in his bloc, edging him closer to forming the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

But the standoff illustrates why Mr. Netanyahu’s critics construe his return as a threat to Israel’s rule of law. His political partners have announced plans to weaken Israel’s system of checks and balances and to derail Mr. Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

Mr. Netanyahu is set to miss a deadline on Sunday to form his new government.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to restrain his partners and denied any plans to disrupt his prosecution in a long-running corruption case. But the context to the extension to the negotiating period, coupled with the appointments he has already made, have exacerbated fears over his attitude to the judiciary and legal norms.

The extra 10 days he has been given to complete a coalition are expected to give Mr. Netanyahu’s allies enough to time to install a new speaker of Parliament — a move that would let Mr. Netanyahu control the parliamentary process without formally leading the government.

This would allow his bloc to overturn legislation that makes it difficult for Mr. Deri — whom Mr. Netanyahu has agreed to appoint concurrently to the interior and health ministries, as well as to the finance ministry in two years’ time — to enter ministerial office given his criminal record.

What to Know About Israel’s Latest Election

The country held its fifth election in less than four years on Nov. 1.

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, is set to return to power with a new, far-right coalition that will once again make him prime minister.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win the election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.
  • What’s Next for the Left?: After a near wipeout, the leaders of Israel’s left-leaning parties say they need to change — but disagree on how.
  • Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.

Mr. Deri, a veteran ultra-Orthodox lawmaker who has previously served in the cabinet, was recently given a suspended prison sentence for failing to declare all his income. According to a recent interpretation of the law by Israel’s attorney general, that prevents Mr. Deri from serving as a minister without special dispensation from the elections authority. He also served nearly two years in prison in the early 2000s after being convicted on charges of taking bribes during his time as interior minister, but that no longer officially disqualifies him from office.

To exempt Mr. Deri, his party has drafted legislation to remove that restriction. On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc is expected to install a right-wing speaker who could help smooth the legislation’s passage through Parliament — alarming Mr. Netanyahu’s critics.

“The goal of this entire move is to help an elected official to escape justice,” Gilad Kariv, a center-left lawmaker from the departing governing coalition, said in Parliament this week. “The future coalition is a coalition of liars who don’t believe one another,” Mr. Kariv added.

Such talk has enraged Mr. Netanyahu’s allies.

Mr. Netanyahu has offered so many positions to rival party leaders that he also needs more time to find suitable roles for allies in his own party, Likud. Credit…Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

“These are venomous statements,” replied Yoav Kisch, a lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud. The planned legislation is not aimed at any politician in particular and is instead a fair attempt “to rectify the current reality of lack of legal clarity in the appointment of ministers,” Mr. Kisch added.

Before a government can be formed, the new speaker will also need to facilitate a parliamentary vote that would give another ministerial nominee greater control over Israel’s security apparatus.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right extremist convicted of support for a terrorist group and incitement to racism, has agreed to join Mr. Netanyahu’s government on condition of being made minister for national security — a new role created specifically for Mr. Ben-Gvir that would give him expanded oversight over the police.

Though Mr. Ben-Gvir also has a history of criminal convictions, his appointment does not require any change to the legislation that governs ministerial appointments because, unlike Mr. Deri, his convictions occurred more than seven years ago. Instead, the powers he seeks over the police force are so wide-ranging that his role must be ratified by Parliament before Mr. Netanyahu can complete his coalition.

The far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir after elections in November.Credit…Oren Ziv/Associated Press

Mr. Netanyahu has offered so many positions to rival party leaders that he also needs more time to find suitable roles for allies in his own party, Likud. Analysts say that much of the next 10 days will also be spent scrambling to stem internal dissent among senior Likud figures, some of whom are set to miss out on appointments to the remaining cabinet posts.

Mr. Netanyahu’s negotiations have also been slowed by a dispute with another far-right leader, Bezalel Smotrich.

A pro-settlement leader who seeks to annex the West Bank to Israel, Mr. Smotrich initially sought to head the defense ministry, a powerful role that would have given him control of the West Bank occupation. After veiled discomfort was voiced by U.S. officials, who feared such an appointment would mark a final death knell for the concept of a Palestinian state, Mr. Netanyahu declined Mr. Smotrich’s request.

But following days of negotiations, Mr. Netanyahu did give Mr. Smotrich’s party control over a defense ministry department that oversees aspects of the occupation, like the process by which Israel issues work permits to Palestinians, and created a job-share mechanism in the interior and finance ministries to allow Mr. Smotrich to take on both roles in tandem with Mr. Deri.

The far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich during a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot.Credit…Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to slice up ministries in this way, either by creating job-shares or moving departments from one ministry to another, has prompted concerns that his government, though more ideologically homogeneous than most Israeli governments, will struggle to function coherently.

“The education ministry, which is far more important than the foreign ministry, was broken down into four or five different components,” Ben Caspit, a prominent columnist, wrote in Ma’ariv, an Israeli broadsheet, on Friday.

“The health ministry was given to Aryeh Deri as a side job,” Mr. Caspit said. “Several powers and sensitive positions have been wrested from the defense ministry for the first time in history. Two ministers who are diametrically opposed to one another will alternate as finance minister.”

“Good luck to all of us,” Mr. Caspit added.

The departing prime minister, Yair Lapid, wrote in a Facebook post on Friday that Mr. Netanyahu’s recent decisions had left him “weak, squeezed by younger and more determined partners.”

Yair Lapid, the departing prime minister, said that Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right bloc is creating a “structure that will be impossible to govern.”Credit…Pool photo by Menahem Kahana

Mr. Lapid added: “They are creating an administrative structure that will be impossible to govern. Likud has become a junior partner in its own government, Netanyahu is at the peak of his weakness, and the extremists are pushing the system into delusional places.”

Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly batted away similar criticism in recent weeks, promising that he will personally act as a moderating force on any extreme elements in his coalition.

“The main policy or the overriding policy of the government is determined by the Likud and frankly, by me,” Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview last month with Bari Weiss, an American podcaster and commentator.

During his previous spells in power, critics often made “these doom projections, but none of them materialized,” he added.

“I maintained Israel’s democratic nature,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “I maintained Israel’s traditions.”

Jonathan Rosen and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.

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