With New Government, Netanyahu Is President in All but Name

Shortly after they were sworn-in as members of the 35th government of Israel, the new ministers – all 34 of them – were directed to the Knesset’s Chagall Hall for the first government meeting.

This wouldn’t be like the inauguration of any previous government. Due to social distancing, there would be no group photograph and they wouldn’t be sitting around one long table. Instead, spaced-out across the entire room, the ministers sat like students while at the front table sat “alternate prime minister” Benny Gantz at one end and Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman at the other. Just one person was missing.

Benjamin Netanyahu, constitutionally a “first among equals” and nominally one of the two leaders of this new government, was giving his new ministers their first lesson.

As they waited for him in the hall, he made a full and leisurely circuit of the television and radio crews, giving interviews and doing what one reporter called a “victory lap,” swatting away aides who told him the government was awaiting.

When he finally deigned to enter the hall and sit between Gantz and Braverman, he lectured the ministers on the need for face masks and the constant washing of hands with sanitizer.

One thing was very clear: He is going to adhere to social distancing for a long time to come and those ministers are rarely, if ever, going to sit around one table. They will be divided into committees and cabinets for various purposes, but the government will be run by Netanyahu – perhaps with occasional input from Gantz and a few other trusted ministers.

For the last few days, as Netanyahu allocated the remaining ministerial portfolios to Likud members, there was much mirth in the media as the titles became increasingly outlandish. What’s the difference between the social equality minister created the last time he formed a government in 2015 and the additional new job of community development minister? Why is the Jerusalem affairs minister also in charge of “national projects,” and what on earth is the connection between “higher education” and “water resources” in another minister’s title?