Netanyahu names ministers to take over portfolios law requires he vacate

Two of the appointments arouse immediate controversy.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed three new ministers Sunday to take his place, and two of them aroused immediate controversy.

Netanyahu had been wearing several hats in the transition government that he had to relinquish after having been indicted, as the law requires that ministers must resign if charges are brought against them.

He had already handed over the defense ministry to Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right party, in November, and made Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism the official head of the ministry last week.

He has now decided to give the Ministry of Construction and Housing to Deputy Minister of Finance Yitzhak Cohen of the Shas party. This entailed moving its current minister, Yifat Shasha-Biton of Likud, to head the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services.

The latter post has been empty since senior Likud minister Haim Katz resigned last August because an indictment had been filed against him for fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu then promoted two Likud members: Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and MK David Bitan. Hotovely will head the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Bitan will run the Agriculture ministry.

The opposition immediately blasted the choice of Bitan, as the police and State Prosecution Service recommended last March that he be charged with multiple counts of bribery following a two-year investigation. The corruption charges date to his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion and as Likud MK and coalition whip, a six-year span between 2011-2017.

“A prime minister who has turned into a fugitive from justice has now appointed a person suspected of bribery to be in charge of the price of all our food,” the Blue and White party said in a statement. “The Netanyahu government has become a criminal organization whose only aim is to ensure immunity from prosecution for its leader.”

If Bitan is eventually indicted, he will be forced to resign, but the Likud explained the appointment as a promise Netanyahu had made his fierce loyalist a long time ago.

Meanwhile, Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Liberman took issue with the appointment of an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker to the construction ministry.

Such a move, he said, “is nothing less than a political coup aimed at establishing facts on the ground” in favor of the religious sector.

In a continuation of his anti-religious campaign theme, he charged, “As though it were not enough that Shas holds the Ministry of the Interior, which gives budgets to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) towns at the expense of the periphery, now the Ministry of Construction and Housing will give undeveloped and agricultural land from regional councils to haredi towns.”

He promised that after the March elections, his party would demand the Interior Ministry “and will examine all the decisions made during Shas’s tenure.”