Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will today meet Naftali Bennett to discuss the latter’s demands to be appointed defence minister, as camps quickly form between establishment factions.
Officials from inside the prime minister’s office revealed that Netanyahu would meet with Bennett – the head of the Jewish Home party and current education minister – to discuss the position of defence minister following the shock resignation of Avigdor Lieberman yesterday.
Netanyahu will also meet with the other heads of the ruling coalition factions to decide whether to disband the government and call for elections, Arutz Sheva reported.
The meeting will be seen as indication of Netanyahu’s desire to respond quickly to Bennett’s demand that his Jewish Home party be handed the defence portfolio. Bennett yesterday threatened to withdraw from the coalition if his demands were not met, which would leave Netanyahu short of a Knesset majority and unlikely to survive the upcoming Haredi draft law vote that must be passed before 2 December.
Meanwhile, divisions between key figures in the Israeli establishment have quickly formed, with ministers supporting either the Netanyahu or Bennett camp. Senior figures from the ruling Likud party have largely stood behind Netanyahu’s decision to impose a ceasefire with Gaza after an intense escalation of violence this weekend, slamming both Lieberman and Bennett’s actions.
Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin – who is currently minister of Jerusalem affairs and was recently defeated in the Jerusalem mayoral elections – condemned Lieberman’s decision to resign, labelling it “bizarre”. Speaking to Israel’s Army Radio today, Elkin said: “Lieberman’s resignation at this time is bizarre and completely lacking responsibility. I cannot find any logical explanation for his decision,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
Elkin added: “With all due respect to politics, there is a country here, there are challenges here – we have to deal with them.”
Another Likud MK Yehuda Glick slammed Bennett’s demand, calling the Jewish Home a “right-wing fringe party”. Glick wrote on Twitter: “When the only issue that justifies a threat to topple a government is the defense portfolio for Bennett, you understand that the Jewish Home is not the national religious party that is interested in basic issues of religion and nationality, but a fringe right-wing party.”
Glick’s labelling of Bennett’s party as a right-wing movement will be seen as ironic in light of his own right-wing history of advocating for Israeli incursions into the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, in violation of the status quo agreement with Jordan. In September, Glick led a group of 117 extremist Israelis into Al-Aqsa to perform prayers at the site, accompanied by Israeli police forces.
Yet other members of the establishment have come out in support of Bennett, including Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel. The Jewish Home MK supported his party leader, telling Arutz Sheva that: “Prime Minister Netanyahu should appoint Minister Bennett as defence minister and this government can continue to function. I think there is an advantage in stability, of course assuming that Bennett will bring security policy to a much better place.”
“To the right-wingers who want a forceful approach, I say – pressure the prime minister to appoint Bennett as defence minister and I think they will see that forcefulness very quickly,” Ariel added, in a nod to the anger among many Israelis that a ceasefire was imposed as opposed to a further bombardment of the already-besieged Gaza Strip.
Hoping to capitalise on the quickly-splintering coalition, Israel’s opposition parties are calling for elections to be held imminently. Speaking yesterday at a joint press conference, chairman of the centre-left Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay and opposition leader Tzipi Livni called for immediate elections since “the country could no longer be left in the hands of the coalition”, the Times of Israel reported.
Gabbay explained: “Today is a day of hope. A day in which the political cynicism between Netanyahu and Liberman explodes. A day in which the cynicism collapses in on itself and brings disintegration. I call for elections now. There is no other solution.”
Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – who is also head of the centrist Kulanu party –joined the opposition in calling for elections, telling Netanyahu that: “As things stand, the best thing for the citizens of Israel and the Israeli economy is to hold elections as soon as possible.” Kahlon added that he thought this would be “the most responsible course of action”.