Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman was sworn in as defense minister Monday evening after a Knesset vote approved his appointment.
Of the 99 lawmakers present in the plenum, 55 voted in favor of Liberman’s appointment and 43 against, with veteran Likud MK Benny Begin breaking party lines to abstain.
The vote came hours after the cabinet unanimously gave the go-ahead for the appointment as part of a deal to bring Liberman’s party into the coalition.
Following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Liberman, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that he would be resigning from the Knesset and temporarily retiring from politics in protest at the move.
Along with Liberman, the Knesset also approved the appointment of Yisrael Beytenu’s Sofa Landver as immigrant absorption minister and Likud member Tzachi Hanegbi as minister without portfolio.
Jewish Home MK Eli Ben-Dahan was reinstated as deputy defense minister after being forced to resign along with Ya’alon.
The addition of Yisrael Beytenu gives the governing coalition 66 of the 120-seat Knesset, bolstering its previously paper-thin majority of just 61. The party was elected in the 2015 elections with six seats but following the deal to join the coalition, MK Orly Levy-Abekasis announced she was leaving the party to serve as an independent.
Upon taking the oath as a minister, Liberman handed in his resignation from the Knesset under the recently passed Norwegian law allowing ministers to step down from the legislature and have their seat filled by a party colleague.
Politicians and pundits reacted with unease and disdain when the decision to appoint Liberman was first announced nearly two weeks ago, warning that giving the Defense Ministry to the firebrand politician was a dangerous move.
In a possible effort to assuage such fears, Liberman touted his pro-peace credentials in a Knesset address after Monday’s vote, hailing a recent speech by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi urging Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks as “a real opportunity.”
“I agree to two states for two peoples,” Liberman said. “I was very supportive of [Netanyahu’s 2009] Bar-Ilan speech; Sissi’s speech was important and created a real opportunity, and we must try to rise to the challenge. Even the Arab initiative has positive elements that allow for dialogue.”
Liberman, who served as foreign minister before moving to the opposition after elections last year, lacks military experience, usually a prerequisite for Israeli defense ministers, but is outspoken on defense matters.
He famously split with Netanyahu, then a partner in a Knesset faction encompassing both Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, on how to manage the 2014 Gaza war and has been outspoken in demanding the death penalty in terrorism cases, to the extent that he made it a prerequisite for his joining the coalition after the elections last March.
Likud MK Benny Begin, the only coalition member not to vote in favor, has been critical of the appointment since it was first announced, calling it “irresponsible” and a “delusional move” on behalf of Netanyahu.
“This move should worry the Israeli public,” he told Army Radio a day after the May 18 announcement.
Monday’s vote was only made possible by late-night talks Sunday that resolved a coalition crisis that threatened to topple the government, with Netanyahu resisting Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett’s demand for an overhaul to the security cabinet.
Bennett, a senior cabinet member, had threatened to vote against the appointment of Liberman to the Defense Ministry — thus torpedoing the coalition deal Likud and Yisrael Beytenu signed last week — if his demand for greater intelligence-sharing in the high-level security cabinet was not met.
Netanyahu on Sunday accepted a proposal put forth by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) that acting head of the National Security Council Brigadier General (ret.) Yaakov Nagel, or his deputy, temporarily act as a military attaché to the cabinet.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.