Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused his coalition partners of being irresponsible and acting for personal gain in moving toward an early election, in a televised statement on Sunday night.
Netanyahu also seemed to reaffirm that he would retain the defense portfolio. Bayit Yehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – who had conditioned their remaining in the government on Bennett becoming defense minister – announced they would be making a statement to the press on Monday morning. Party sources said the ministers were considering resigning from the government to trigger an election, or they may vote with the opposition on Wednesday to dissolve the Knesset – or do both – but they are going to “sleep on it” before deciding.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon agreed to hold a second meeting with Netanyahu this week, after they did not reach an agreement after meeting on Sunday evening. Kahlon was the first in the coalition to call for an election after Avigdor Liberman resigned from the Defense Ministry
last week, pulling Yisrael Beytenu out of the coalition and leaving it with a one-seat majority.
Netanyahu said at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Sunday that Israel is “in one of the most complex security situations. At a time like this, we do not topple a government and hold an election. It’s irresponsible. We have a year left” until an election legally must take place.
Netanyahu compared ministers contemplating an early election to deserters.
“Do not abandon the battle in the middle. We do not play politics in the middle of a battle. National security goes beyond politics and personal considerations. I am making every effort to prevent an unnecessary early election. I told coalition party leaders to show responsibility… for Israel and Israel’s security,” he said.
The prime minister also referred to 1992 and 1999, when infighting in the Right led to an early election and the Left won. In their aftermath, the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, and the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, references that he has made repeatedly in recent days.
Netanyahu defended the security cabinet’s decision to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas – which is the reason Liberman said he resigned – and seemed to defend retention of the defense portfolio for himself, despite Bennett’s ultimatum, in that he presented himself as Israel’s ultimate defender.
“When we make these decisions in matters of life of death about the existence of the state – these matters are no place for politics,” he stated. “Most citizens know that when I make security decisions I do it out of honest and deep concern for the good of our country, and the security of our citizens and our soldiers. These are not slogans.”
The prime minister said he has dedicated his entire life to Israel’s security, listing his brother Yoni’s demise in the 1976 Entebbe raid, his own experience as a soldier and officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, and his multiple injuries in battle.
“I endangered my life time after time to ensure our life here in Israel,” he said. “As prime minister I gave the instructions for countless actions during and in between wars to ensure Israel’s security. Most are still unknown.”
Netanyahu said he understands the public’s frustration about the ceasefire, but there are things he cannot reveal.
“I won’t tell you when I am going to act, but I have a clear plan. I know what we will do and when. And we will do it,” he said.
“With the strength of our soldiers and the resilience of our citizens, we will defeat our enemies,” Netanyahu declared.
A source close to Bennett said that “the prime minister is right that the security situation is critical and that this isn’t the time to play political games. Therefore, the right answer would be to appoint Naftali Bennett as defense minister to bring back our deterrence, so we can defeat our enemies.”
Netanyahu’s office said he will make decisions about portfolios later this week. He currently holds the premiership as well as the foreign, defense, health and immigration absorption portfolios. He is expected to appoint someone to the Foreign Ministry and the Immigration Absorption Ministry.
Kahlon and Bennett’s explanation for why they think it’s time for an early election, which they gave in interviews over the weekend, was that the coalition has not been able to get anything done for several weeks, even when it was 66 seats strong, and now that it’s down to 61 seats, it will be worse. The coalition will be too impacted by individual rebel MKs.
But at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Yariv Levin both said they did not understand why the coalition partners were unwilling to continue in a 61-seat coalition when they did so for this government’s first year.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked defended her party from Netanyahu’s repeated accusation that dismantling a right-wing government is dangerous, saying that “at this point the government is no longer right-wing.
“We did what we could,” she added – listing achievements of her party such as appointing conservative judges and the law retroactively legalizing outposts – “but it is clear that what we need to do will not get done under this government.”
On Shaked’s to-do list were bulldozing Khan al-Ahmar, an unauthorized Beduin shantytown in the West Bank; deporting migrants; and passing a law to allow the Knesset to circumvent High Court decisions.
However, Shaked brought up the Bayit Yehudi ultimatum that party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett be made defense minister as the only justification for the government to continue to function until its legal end of term in 12 months.
Netanyahu ally coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) expressed skepticism that the government could be salvaged.
“We have a [right-wing] government that could continue for another year,” Amsalem said. “The prime minister will meet with the finance minister – but personally, I think these talks have no chance.”
Amsalem blamed Bennett for the deterioration in the coalition.
“He’s a troublemaker, trying to give us grades. He is rude at levels that I have never seen. He humiliated Avigdor Liberman for eight months,” Amsalem lamented, referring to Bennett’s repeated criticism of Liberman’s defense policies.
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