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Israeli minister steps down over protest limits in blow to Netanyahu’s shaky cabinet

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A file photo taken from Israeli media shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Benny Gantz, the minister for military affairs, during a Knesset session.

Israel’s tourism minister has resigned in protest at a contentious law that effectively stifles mass rallies against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under the guise of containing the coronavirus, prompting a new war of words between rival parties in the premier’s already shaky administration.

Asaf Zamir of the Blue and White party said Friday that he was stepping down from the coalition administration, citing the adoption of legislation in the Knesset to restrict protests during the coronavirus lockdown in the occupied territories.

In a lengthy Facebook post, he said he would no longer serve an administration “in whose leader I haven’t an iota of faith,” referring to Netanyahu.

Zamir said the cabinet’s drafting of the regulations banning large demonstrations and their subsequent approval on Tuesday at the Knesset — where Netanyahu’s Likud party retains a majority — were the “final straw” for him.

The law bans Israelis from holding demonstrations more than one kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes during the second lockdown, which went into effect across the Israeli-occupied territories on September 18 for an indefinite period of time.

Critics, however, says the measure is actually intended to block mass protests against Netanyahu amid anger over the prime minister’s graft charges as well as his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has taken a heavy toll on Israeli businesses and sent unemployment rates soaring in the occupied territories.

Tel Aviv and the streets near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem (al-Quds) have, in recent months, been the scene of thousands-strong demonstrations against the premier, with the participants calling for him to step down.

Echoing other opponents, Zamir said Netanyahu — who is on trial for three corruption cases — was putting his legal troubles before the fight against the outbreak.

Several Blue and White ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet have threatened to step down in recent weeks, but Zamir has so far been the only one who has acted on his threat.

Blue & White, Likud trade barbs

Reacting to the resignation, Gantz, Israel’s minister for military affairs, took an aggressive stance against Netanyahu, warning the prime minister of a new election.

Gantz, Israel’s alternate prime minister, issued a sternly-worded statement and said his Blue and White party agreed to join the coalition administration to fight the coronavirus, not “democracy” and “the rule of law.”

“If that is inconvenient to some, they are free to set a date for elections,” Gantz said.

Israel “is facing a deep and severe crisis: a health crisis, but alongside it, and no less significant, a crisis of trust between the leadership and the citizenry,” Gantz said. “A focus on political interests is taking precedence over maintaining public health and the livelihood of millions of families who rightly fear for their fate and jobs.”

Gantz also said he had instructed Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to begin the process of appointing a new “state prosecutor,” a post that has been manned by temporary appointments since last December.

Under the coalition agreement with Likud, Blue and White cannot appoint a new “state prosecutor” without Likud’s agreement. Further tension would thus hit Netanyahu’s troubled administration in case Gantz moves to do so.

Likud was quick to hit back at the Blue and White leader, saying in a Twitter post that the party was playing political games and breaking coalition agreements “in a desperate attempt to cobble up some left-wing votes and to prevent their collapse in the polls.”

“Blue and White are in the government while acting against the government. It’s time they decided whether they’re fighting the pandemic or fighting the government,” it added.

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