Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fired Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as part of a cabinet reshuffle which will remain in place until fresh elections are held in September.
Netanyahu yesterday informed the pair of their dismissal on the grounds that they "cannot continue in their sensitive roles in the cabinet for another six months as they were not elected by the public," Ynet reported, citing unnamed Israeli government sources.
Bennett and Shaked's New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party – which the pair formed in December after breaking away from the Jewish Home party – failed to cross the 3.25 per cent minimum threshold needed to gain seats in the Knesset during the 9 April election.
Bennett and Shaked had thus far maintained their portfolios due to the deadlock in post-election coalition talks, which would have seen new ministers appointed to the 21st Knesset. However, after these negotiations ended in failure last week, no such appointments were made. Israel will now head to the polls again on 17 September, the first time in its history that two elections will be held in the same year.
However, despite not being re-elected in April, on Sunday both Bennett and Shaked attended the cabinet's weekly meeting, the first to be held since the political impasse of the past two months. Netanyahu was reportedly "outraged" by their attendance, shortly afterwards giving the two ministers 48 hours' notice that their positions would be terminated. The Jerusalem Post added that "the next cabinet meeting was pushed off by Netanyahu until Tuesday to ensure they would not be able to attend".
Netanyahu's decision will be seen as yet another blow to Bennett and Shaked, whose dramatic fall from grace in April has left them struggling to preserve their former prominence and popularity.
Bennett yesterday told reporters outside his home in Ra'anana, north of Tel Aviv, that "this morning I was education minister, tonight I am Naftali," lamenting that "everyone is replaceable". Bennett also announced that he will contest September's election as head of the New Right party, saying the return to the polls has provided "an opportunity for all of us to approach things more wisely, more seriously, more modestly. That goes for me, too".
There was, however, no mention of Shaked joining Bennett at the New Right party's helm. Sources close to Shaked reported that she was "surprised" by Netanyahu's decision, but she has not thus far issued a statement on her dismissal, saying only that she will take a few days to "consider her next move".
Shaked had been hoping to join Netanyahu's Likud party, with rumours circulating last week that the prime minister was considering reserving for her a prominent place on the party's slate. However, Netanyahu yesterday appeared to backtrack on this position, telling Likud party members that she would not be allowed to join the party.
Although the exact reasons for Netanyahu's about-turn are unclear, reports emerged yesterday that the prime minister's wife, Sara, has vetoed the prospect of Shaked joining Likud.
According to the Times of Israel – which cited a report yesterday by Israel's Channel 13 – during the final day of coalition talks the prospect of Shaked joining Likud was discussed. Several witnesses to these talks told Channel 13 that, at this point, Sara took Netanyahu aside and "castigated him for even considering such a move", saying "Ayelet Shaked won't be in Likud. Period".
Though Sara holds no official sway over such matters in her position as the prime minister's wife, the Israeli daily added that she "has long been rumored to have outsize influence over political appointments and policy". Her reasons for vetoing Shaked are unknown.
The Netanyahus and the Likud party are not the only ones to have seemingly cast Shaked aside.
The Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) – an alliance of the Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties – has made it clear following her dismissal as justice minister that Shaked should not entertain ideas of returning to her former party as leader.
Speaking to Israel's Army Radio yesterday, URWP number two Bezalel Smotrich slammed Shaked, saying she had "abandoned, divided, crushed and made a mistake that sent the whole country into a whirlwind". He continued: "You want to come back? We can certainly consider, but I don't think there's a reason in the world why you should be number 1."
However, the controversial Knesset Member (MK)'s comments must also be seen in light of the fact that he and URWP number one, Rafi Peretz, are pushing to be given Bennett and Shaked's former portfolios. URWP has long conditioned its support of a Netanyahu government on control over the justice and education ministries, two portfolios which will form an integral part of their ambitions to curtail the power of the Supreme Court and "restore the Torah justice system".
Netanyahu this weekend seemed to have other plans, yesterday offering the justice ministry to Yariv Levin, a Likud MK who currently serves as Israel's tourism minister. Levin, however, refused the appointment, saying he did not want to serve as justice minister only for the interim period until a new cabinet is chosen.
Netanyahu could be forced to cede to URWP's demands in order to preserve its support ahead of September's election, should he have any hope of avoiding a recurrence of April's coalition deadlock and, ultimately, preserving his position as prime minister.