In a sign of the growing tensions within Benjamin Netanyahu’s fraying coalition, top surrogates of the prime minister railed Sunday against the chair of the Jewish Home party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, accusing him of forcing the early collapse of a right-wing coalition and threatening to return the left to power.
“We have a nationalist government that could continue for another year,” until the legally mandated election date in November 2019, coalition chairman MK David Amsalem (Likud) said in an interview with Israel Radio.
“Let there be no doubt, we’re going to elections because of Naftali Bennett. In my view the talks [to prevent the government’s collapse] are borderline hopeless. Naftali is pitting us all against each other, giving us grades. It’s unprecedented chutzpah,” he charged.
Bennett has threatened to pull his party out of the coalition, forcing new elections, if he is not appointed defense minister instead of Avigdor Liberman, who announced his resignation last week, condemning Israel’s ceasefire with Hamas after a deadly exchange in the south.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Yonatan Urich sounded a more diplomatic tone, but the message was the same. “Ministers [Moshe] Kahlon and Bennett can prevent the government’s collapse right now, today,” he said in a post on Twitter.
“We can definitely prevent unnecessary elections at this time and let this government last for many more months. The next 12 hours are their last opportunity to save the right-wing government and not revisit the mistakes of 1992 and 1999,” when right-wing coalition partners toppled their governments and ushered in left-wing administrations.
But Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, one of Likud’s top political negotiators, argued that elections would not significantly affect the political map.
“A very large section of the public wants to see Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. The heads of the small parties are creating instability and behaving irresponsibly. They brought us to this situation. If we go to elections, the best-case scenario is that we will get the same government,” he told Israel Radio.
With his coalition falling apart, Netanyahu on Sunday canceled the two key political meetings he holds each week with top ministers.
The meeting with the heads of the coalition’s member parties — Kulanu’s Kahlon, UTJ head Yaakov Litzman, Shas leader Aryeh Deri, Bennett, and until his resignation last week, Yisrael Beytenu chief Liberman — serves to coordinate the coalition’s agenda, both in parliament and in the government.
The forum is all but irrelevant for the moment amid the worst political crisis in the 20th Knesset’s 3.5-year history. In addition to Liberman’s resignation and Bennett’s threat to follow suit, both Deri and Kahlon have notified the prime minister they prefer elections sooner rather than later.
The meeting with Likud party ministers has also been called off, in part, sources said, to avoid the chance that ministers from Netanyahu’s own party will use the opportunity to join in the political gamesmanship and further raise tensions with other coalition partners.
A meeting between Netanyahu and Kahlon is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sunday, part of a slew of one-on-one meetings the prime minister is holding with coalition partners in his efforts to stave off the government’s collapse.
Facing criticism for sparking the political crisis with his resignation, the now-former defense minister Liberman defended his actions in an interview with Army Radio on Sunday morning, saying the cabinet’s decision to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas on Tuesday while rockets were falling on Israel led to his decision.
He accused Netanyahu of seeking to keep Hamas in power and preferring “terror to peace.”
“Go look at the prime minister’s statements on the issue of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas,” Liberman said. “I went over all of them, and I saw that the very idea of reconciliation, and the desire to reach an agreement between [the two factions], means that you’re choosing terror over peace.”
Asked if he believed Bennett, the education minister, would be a good replacement as defense minister, he quipped, “The only good thing about appointing him defense minister is that it would save the education system.”