Ministry of Justice in focus as Netanyahu starts coalition talks



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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin a series of talks on Thursday as he seeks to form a coalition government for his fifth term, initially focusing on the Ministry of Justice.

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday officially ordered Netanyahu to convene a coalition to rule the 21st Knesset with an appeal to the Israeli leader to calm social divisions after a combative election campaign.

Netanyahu's most likely choice is a coalition of 65 right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties including Likud (35 seats), Shas (8), Judaism of the United TorĂ¡ (8), Union of Right-wing parties (5), Yisrael Beytenu (5) and Kulanu (4).

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The negotiations were likely to be fierce, with all parties except Kulanu, indispensable for the majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Initial speculation focused on the Ministry of Justice, with Netanyahu's legal problems expected to be a major issue in the next term. The prime minister is facing a charge in three separate cases in the coming months, pending a hearing.

It is speculated that Netanyahu could use his new political force to enact legislation that would guarantee him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister. It has been reported that he is considering conditioning his new government's entry into potential support for so-called French law by harboring a sitting prime minister of prosecution. Netanyahu publicly gave contradictory signals about whether he will seek such legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a Knesset vote on the budget, which coincided with the police's recommendations that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust, February 13 2018. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

On Wednesday, reports from the Hebrew media indicated that Netanyahu favored both Tourism Minister Likar Yariv Levin and National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich as Minister of Justice. Channel 12 reported that "it was almost certain" Netanyahu would choose one of the two men.

The outgoing Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, also a proponent of Israel's reform of the judiciary with its reputation as a liberal bastion, did not make the Knesset after its New Right party failed to cross the electoral threshold.

Both Levin and Smotrich expressed their support for repressing the Supreme Court and for removing its ability to act as a control over the legislature, and Smotrich said explicitly that he would seek to enact legislation to protect Netanyahu from prosecution.

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Smotrich, a co-founder of right-wing NGO Regavim, which targets illegal construction of non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank, entered the Knesset in 2015 and quickly became known for his inflexible right-wing views and controversial remarks.

During his four years in the Knesset, he made headlines for encouraging gunfights in protest of the IDF's "radical feminist" agenda for comparing the evacuation of an illegal settlement post to "brutal rape" and alleging that "illiterates ". "Arabs are only admitted to university thanks to affirmative action. He also called himself a "proud homophobe," called for segregated Jewish-Arab maternity hospitals and was involved in organizing an anti-gay "Beasts Stop" in Jerusalem in response to the city's annual gay pride parade.

Meanwhile, in Likud's victory party on Tuesday, Netanyahu attacked news analyst Amnon Abramovich of Channel 12, who recently joked that if Netanyahu did justice to Levin, he would add a year to his sentence in cases of corruption against him .

The prime minister denied the allegations and said the cases are part of a witch hunt aimed at driving him out, involving the left, the media and the police pressing a weak prosecutor general.

After protests, Abramovich said his statements were made in jest, but Netanyahu described them as a threat against him on Tuesday night.

Abramovich, a prominent reporter and commentator who covered the criminal investigations in Netanyahu, drew a steady stream of criticism from Netanyahu and his supporters.

Netanyahu is suspected in three criminal investigations, known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which investigators have recommended graft allegations.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, awaiting hearing.

Netanyahu will have 28 days to form a government, with the possibility of a two-week extension, at the discretion of the president.

Illustrative: the head of Yisrael Beytenu, Avigdor Liberman (left), Shas leader, Aryeh Deri (center), and the head of Judaism of the United Torah, Yaakov Litzman, in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster / Flash90)

Legal issues aside, Netanyahu is also expected to find it difficult to reconcile the demands of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, which saw an increase in support, and the secularist party of Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beytenu.

Liberman has vowed to stand firm on religious and state issues in a coalition that is likely to be dominated by the religious right, particularly on the issue of ultra-Orthodox drafting.

Once Netanyahu has finished all this, he will face the difficult issue of meeting the demands for ministerial positions of his fellow Likud members who will want a bigger slice of the pie after winning 35 seats.

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