About-face will likely cost me a political price - Bennett

Bennett drops ultimatum despite cold shoulder from PM, keeping coalition afloat

In about-face, Jewish Home leader heaps criticism on Netanyahu’s defense policies but says he will nevertheless ‘stand by his side’

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

In a dramatic announcement Monday morning, Education Minister Naftali Bennett reneged on a promise to pull his Jewish Home party out of the government and force new elections if he is not made defense minister, keeping the coalition alive with a razor-thin majority.

Despite heaping withering criticism on the government’s defense policies, Bennett said he will back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has now also taken on the position of defense minister, in an effort to improve Israel’s “deep security crisis.”

Speaking at a press conference at the Knesset, Bennett said he had decided to “stand by the prime minister’s side,” and not act on his ultimatum to leave the government.

Citing what he described as a series of failures, Bennett said that “the ship of Israel’s security has sailed in the wrong direction.”

“Israel has stopped winning” since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, he complained, speaking alongside his party number two, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the confusion, the chaos, the lack of determination, the lack of spirit.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver a statement to reporters on November 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yet, despite the criticism, the Jewish Home leader said he believed that Netanyahu would be able to “change direction” with him by his side.

“We think that there is no answer to terror, to rockets and mortars, but there is an answer — we can get back to winning,” he said.

The announcement came after Netanyahu urged his partners on Sunday night to stay the course in the current government because Israel is in “one of our most complex periods in terms of security.”

Touting his military experience in the Sayeret Matkal elite operations unit and his “years of having ordered many military operations” as prime minister, Netanyahu said that he “knows when to act and what to do” in moments of crisis.

Bennett said that “if the prime minister is true to his words, and I want to believe that he will be, then we will stand by his side.”

According to Bennett, the Jewish Home had succeeded in preventing a slew of “misguided security decisions” in the past, such as the release of further terrorists after more than 1,000 were freed as part of a 2011 deal to secure the release of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit.

“We have proved ourselves through actions. We can change the direction,” he said.

Immediately before Bennett’s announcement, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs committee, saying that Israel was “ready for all security challenges.”

Called to the committee last week following a much-maligned ceasefire deal reached with Hamas after a two-day rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu was set to address committee members in a closed-door session but took the opportunity to make brief public comments first.

Committee chair Avi Dichter said it was the first time the the high-level Knesset body would hear a briefing from the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister “at the same time” — three positions all now held by Netanyahu, who took up the defense portfolio after Avigdor Liberman resigned the post in protest of the ceasefire.

The prime minister opened his public comments by repeating the key sentiments from his Sunday night speech calling on coalition members not to bring down the government.

“As I said yesterday, we are still in a military campaign. During this sensitive security time, it is irresponsible to bring down the government,” he said. “Even if people try, we will continue to work for Israel’s security.”

The Kulanu party’s Knesset faction chair, MK Roy Folkman, said elections were likely regardless of Bennett’s announcement.

“The coalition hasn’t been functioning properly for several weeks. We will go to elections even if Bennett and Ayelet Shaked don’t resign,” he told Army Radio Monday morning.

He called Netanyahu’s Sunday evening speech denouncing those who threatened to resign “the beginning of the election campaign.”

The political crisis began Wednesday with the resignation of Liberman over his criticism of the government’s handling of the violence emanating from Gaza. The withdrawal of Liberman’s five-seat Yisrael Beytenu faction reduced the governing coalition to the slimmest 61-seat majority.

Immediately after the resignation, Bennett demanded the defense portfolio in Liberman’s stead, warning that without it he would withdraw his own eight-seat faction and ensure the toppling of the coalition and new elections.

On Sunday night, Netanyahu delivered a stinging critique of both party leaders. “We are in the middle of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon a campaign to play politics,” Netanyahu said. “The security of the country is above politics and personal considerations.”

Jewish Home spokespeople were unimpressed by Netanyahu’s speech, carried live on prime-time national televised news at 8 p.m.

“This is a government that calls itself right-wing but acts left,” the party said in a statement responding to the prime minister’s comments. “If Bennett is not given the job of rehabilitating Israel’s security, we must go to elections immediately. The public is tired of voting right but getting left.”

Bennett admitted on Monday that his about-face would likely “cost me a political price,” but, he added, “it doesn’t matter, it’s better that we can help the prime minister lead us to victory.”

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