Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on Sunday praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman as Israel’s new defense minister.
The appointment has faced criticism from across the political spectrum in Israel and from abroad.
Erdan, who is Netanyahu’s No. 2 in Likud, mocked the Left for “yelling and screaming that the end of the world is near” because Liberman would be in charge of security.
“As someone who has known Avigdor Liberman personally for more than 20 years, I am confident that he will make an excellent minister of defense,” Erdan said.
“I believe that it is good that every once in a while we have a defense minister who does not come from the military establishment. Someone from the outside can bring fresh thinking and a fresh perspective to the IDF.
Erdan also said he did not understand former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s decision to take a break from politics instead of accepting Netanyahu’s offer to become foreign minister.
“He was elected to serve the people, and he could have continued to serve them in a different role in the government,” Erdan said.
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, a former general who also spoke at the conference, told the crowd that “to criticize Ya’alon in English is chutzpa.”
“This is not the right place, and I don’t think any other minister from the current government can criticize if he’s Zionist or not Zionist enough,” he said.
Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who has been talked about as a possible future candidate for prime minister, told reporters at the conference that he hopes Liberman will be a big success as defense minister.
“His success is the success of all of us,” Ashkenazi said.
He later said on a panel hosted by Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz that he has great respect for Ya’alon and he hopes the former defense minister continues to contribute to Israel.
He declined to answer a question from Katz about his own political future.
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) also called for Liberman to be given a chance, while former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy predicted that Liberman could be the first Israeli defense minister to talk to Hamas.
Separately, on Sunday, Netanyahu told Likud ministers he still hoped he could get Zionist Union to enter the coalition despite the impending deal with the incoming defense minister’s Yisrael Beytenu party. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog vowed on Twitter, however, that he would not join.
“At the moment of truth, everyone makes their choice,” Herzog wrote. “Netanyahu chose Liberman and [Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali] Bennett, and we chose to struggle against him.”
Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu offered MK Bennie Begin a post as a minister in order to keep him in Likud after he criticized the appointment of Liberman. It was unclear late Sunday whether he would accept the post.
Conference speaker Gideon Sa’ar, a former minister seen as a future prime-ministerial candidate, did not mention either Liberman or Ya’alon in his address to the conference, but he wrote on Twitter on Friday that Ya’alon was a courageous leader and a man of principle.
Sa’ar used the speech to call for building in Jerusalem and connecting the capital to the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. In veiled criticism of Netanyahu for not building enough in the capital, he warned that if Israel did not substantially increase construction in Jerusalem, there could be an Arab majority in 15 years.
“If we do not act, we will wake up and find that we have lost Jerusalem,” Sa’ar said. “We must build in Jerusalem today for future generations.”
Sa’ar called upon US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to allow Israel to build in its capital.
“They should promise now that they will not pressure Israel to give up its right to build in our capital,” he said, as the crowd cheered.