Old Faces, New Positions: Who’s Who in Israel’s 35th Government

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Typically a grandiose event attended by 120 Israeli parliamentarians, their families, and high profile guests, the swearing in of Israel’s long-awaited government fell somewhat short of its usual splendour as members of the opposition booed and interrupted the keynote speeches of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ally Benny Gantz. 

And while only time can tell whether the vexed coalition is set for glory, failure, or pure irrelevance, here’s what we do know about Israel’s 35th government:

Take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example.

What we know: Netanyahu entered politics in 1988, when he served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN. Over the years, he has won crowds of supporters, made an array of enemies – after betraying some and removing others from his path – and has quite a handful of skeletons in his chic closet, which he incidentally shares with his wife Sara.
In terms of reputation, Netanyahu has been praised as a genius negotiator (it was he who led to the disintegration of the Blue and White party that posed the main threat to his leadership as well as inked deals with Chad and Sudan) and as “Mr Security” (for his handling of Israel’s security challenges), while over the years his opposition wallowed in jealousy over his extensive ability to flirt with both left and right-wing voters. Most notably, he will also be remembered for his hawkish views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for becoming Israel’s longest-serving PM to date.

What to expect: Mainly that he will not go away despite an array of scandals and probes against him, which include buying positive press and receiving illegal gifts from a rich donor. In spite of multiple attempts by the country’s opposition to get rid of the PM, Netanyahu has proven to be resilient and has showed zero intention to pack up. Although his tenure has an expiry date according to the agreement sealed with the Blue and White, the chances that he will relinquish his post and vacate his seat as PM are slim – at least that’s what the Israeli public thinks, a recent poll conducted by the country’s Channel 12 has shown.

During his one and a half years in office, he is also expected to attend a number of court hearings; but unlike Ehud Olmert, who faced similar charges, he is expected to turn his trial into a circus, depicting himself as a martyr. 

Alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz

What we know: In 2011, after various jobs at the IDF, he was appointed to the position of the country’s chief of staff, leading Israel through one of its fiercest battles – Operation Protective Edge in 2014. After leaving the army, he started trying himself in politics and in 2019 established his Israel Resilience Party that later merged with two others, creating what’s now known as the Blue and White. After three rounds of exhausting election campaigns that cost Israel’s tax payers some $2.5 billion and after failed attempts to form a coalition, he decided to split from his former partners, who were reluctant to form a government with Netanyahu and establish a coalition with the current prime minister.

What to expect: In short – not much. Being an inexperienced politician, Gantz will probably try to learn and absorb as much as possible from Netanyahu, a heavyweight in Israeli politics. On the military front, he is expected to tackle enemies that he failed to subdue in the past, primarily Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, but Israel’s media doubts he has the “creativity” to do so.

Foreign Affairs Minister Gabbi Ashkenazi

What we know: Between 2007 and 2011 he served as Israel’s 19th chief of staff, leading the country through operation Cast Lead, which aimed to destroy Hamas’ network of tunnels designed to kidnap and kill Israelis. Just like others before him, he failed, with Hamas still firing rockets left, right, and centre whenever an opportunity arises. It was also during his time that Israel bombed Syria’s suspected nuclear reactor located in the Deir Ezzor region. Prior to assuming the post of chief of staff, he served Israel in a number of positions, including as director general of the Defence Ministry, chief of the Northern Command, and others. 
 What to expect: Gaining a reputation as a “tough guy”, Ashkenazi, who will now control Israel’s Foreign Ministry with its low morale and depleted resources, is expected to bang on the table to make sure his ministry gets the necessary funding. He might need to bang hard and long until Netanyahu, who has brought the ministry down, concedes to his demands. Coming from a relevant military background, he is also set to play a pivotal role in convincing the international community that Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty over parts of the West Bank are not only good for Israel and the world, but also for the Palestinians, whose income will grow as a result of Israel’s presence in the area.  

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein

What we know: Immigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1987 after spending several years in prison for his Zionist activity, he was one of the co-founders of the Yisrael Be-Aliya party that was established to cater to the needs of Soviet immigrants, who often felt at a loss in their new country. In 1996, his party gained seven seats and joined Netanyahu’s coalition, with Edelstein serving as the minister of absorption during Bibi’s first tenure in office. In 2013, he was appointed to the position of chairman of the Knesset, a role he held up until recently.

What to expect: Mainly to make mistakes. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of more than 270 people in the country, Israel’s health system has been suffering from low budgets and a lack of equipment, prompting doctors to try their luck elsewhere, mainly in the United States and Europe.

Edelstein, who comes to the office with lots of enthusiasm but no relevant experience, is determined to rise to the challenge and has already stated he will rely on a professional adviser to help him deal with the country’s most severe health crisis. Let’s hope he will choose his adviser carefully.

Transportation Minister and Future Minister of Foreign Affairs Miri Regev

What we know: After resigning from the IDF, where she served as a spokeswoman, she started taking baby steps into politics and in 2009 was elected for the first time to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. She later chaired the Internal Affairs Committee and more recently held the post of culture mnister – a position she filled without reading even one book by Chekhov and without attending even one musical (as she herself admitted).
 What to expect: Known for her diligence and work ethics, Regev might do a decent job as transportation minister, but her appointment to the position of foreign minister under Gantz, who is set to take office in November 2021, made many in Israel raise their eyebrows.

Not exactly the most diplomatic person, with zero English and hawkish views, she is the one entrusted to lead Israel’s multiple battles on the international arena, which include (but are not limited to) the country’s annexation plans as well as dealings with the US and a somewhat hostile Europe.

​Homeland Security Minister Amir Ohana

What we know: Ohana first became a parliamentarian in 2015, but gained momentum only in 2020, when Netanyahu fired former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked and appointed Ohana instead. And he delivered. Not only that, during his short time in office he made multiple attacks against the man who indicted Netanyahu. He has allegedly also used the eruption of the pandemic to shut down the country’s courts, thus postponing the trial of the prime minister to 24 May. 

What to expect: He is expected to say and do what his boss wants. In charge of the police forces, he will now have access to Netanyahu’s investigations, leading some to believe that the appointment was designed to get the PM out of his legal problems.

Minister of Education Yoav Galant

What we know: Galant boasts a rich military background that probably hurt his sense of humour (the man never smiles). Among the positions he has held are: chief of Israel’s Southern Command, as well as military secretary under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and others. After leaving the IDF, he tried himself in politics and became one of the key figures in former Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s party. Upon joining Likud under Netanyahu, he became the country’s absorption minister. 

What to expect: Becoming Israel’s education minister was not one of Galant’s goals. In the past, he admitted that he’d eyed the Defence Ministry with great interest. However, when that didn’t happen, he decided to settle for the position he was offered, vowing to “invest in the future of Israeli kids”. The only problem is that with his military background, that future might look a bit bleak.

Minister of Finance Yisrael Katz

What we know: He has been serving as a Likud parliamentarian since 1998. During Sharon’s second tenure, he served as minister of agriculture and development, but resigned shortly after to join another party, Kadima. Between 2009 and 2019, he served as Israel’s transportation minister, but in May he left that job too order to assume the position of the country’s foreign minister – also with very basic English.

What to expect: After making multiple mistakes at his previous job, including stalling projects and failing ot provide almost a hundred Israeli towns with decent transportation, Katz is up to a new challenge. However, Israel’s media has already warned that the man who “destroyed” the nation’s infrastructure will do the same to the country’s budget, which needs every penny to deal with the acute economic crisis and the high unemployment rates that have already exceeded 25 percent – the absolute highest since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

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