Israel's security cabinet may have been operating illegally in the wake of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman's resignation earlier this month.
Under a 2001 law the security cabinet – an inner circle of government comprised of ten senior ministers – cannot hold more than half the members of the wider cabinet. Since Lieberman resigned on 14 November the cabinet has only held 19 members, leaving the security cabinet "over-staffed" by one member.
The discrepancy was first pointed out by Israel's Channel 10 yesterday, with the Times of Israel explaining that by "taking [Lieberman's] Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition together with former absorption minister Sofa Landver, the number of ministers in the government dropped from 21 to 19, but the number of members of the security cabinet fell only from 11 to 10".
The Israeli daily added: "By law, the [security cabinet] seemingly cannot operate unless another minister is appointed to the government or one minister is removed from the security cabinet."
Prior to his resignation Lieberman was a member of the security cabinet, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. The group holds an important role in Israel's government, being responsible for Israel's foreign and defence policies, dealing with national emergencies and launching wars or agreeing ceasefires.
It was a disagreement inside the security cabinet over Israel's ceasefire with Gaza earlier this month which initially prompted Lieberman's shock resignation. In a press conference, Lieberman explained the felt the ceasefire was a "submission to terror", arguing that "what we are in effect doing is buying short term quiet [in Gaza] and the price will be difficult for [Israel's] security in the long term".
His move sparked a crisis in the government, as the Jewish Home party – a member of the ruling coalition – threatened to withdraw if the newly-vacant defence portfolio were not handed to its leader Naftali Bennett. "It's either the Defence Ministry or we are out […] this is our ultimatum to stay in the government," Jewish Home officials told Netanyahu. It later emerged that the party had planned to withdraw in protest at the Gaza ceasefire, but was beaten to the announcement by Lieberman.
Netanyahu scrambled to save the coalition, meeting with Bennett to discuss his demands and calling on all parties not to bring down the government. Facing opposition to Bennett's appointment by other coalition members, Netanyahu decided to take on the defence portfolio himself, in addition to the Health Ministry and his position as prime minister. After a week-long crisis, Jewish Home announced that it would withdraw its threats and stay in government, with Bennett saying he had decided to "stand by the prime minister's side".
The Israeli government is currently facing some difficult votes which could yet destabilise the coalition. The government was today expected to vote on a controversial bill requiring cultural organisations to be "loyal" to the state in order to receive funding, but the vote was postponed at the last minute. The coalition has also sought to delay an equally-controversial vote on drafting its ultra-orthodox population into the Israeli army, citing Netanyahu's short term as defence minister as justification.