The political system was bracing Monday for the de facto felling of Israel’s 34th government at 10:30 a.m., when the leaders of the Jewish Home party were expected to announce their resignations at a press conference in the Knesset, sending the country to elections.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked were expected to follow through on their threat to pull out of the coalition if Bennett isn’t made defense minister, despite a Sunday evening speech in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his partners to stay the course because Israel is in “one of our most complex periods in terms of security.”
“I spoke personally with Bennett and Shaked. I was given to understand that they are about to resign at 10:30,” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a member of Bennett’s Jewish Home faction, told Army Radio Monday morning.
Netanyahu was scheduled to deliver remarks at the opening of a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at 10 a.m., shortly before Bennett’s press conference, and is expected to address the Jewish Home leaders’ reported plans to resign.
The Kulanu party’s Knesset faction chair, MK Roy Folkman, said elections were likely no matter what Bennett announces Monday morning.
“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.
He called Netanyahu’s Sunday evening speech denouncing those who threatened to resign “the beginning of the election campaign.”
On Monday morning, Ariel’s National Union party, which merged with the National Religious Party in 2009 to form the Jewish Home, released a statement backing Bennett’s demand for the defense portfolio.
Bennett’s appointment would “fundamentally change Israel’s current defense policy. We believe that only a decisive and clear military strike against the leaders of Hamas, and everyone involved in terrorism against us, will restore Israel’s deterrence and send a message to the entire region that the State of Israel won’t tolerate attacks on its sovereignty and citizens,” the statement said.
But National Union was less clear on the question of resigning from the government. The statement said that if Jewish Home decided to leave the coalition, National Union would convene its central committee and vote whether to follow suit.
But even if National Union’s two lawmakers within the Jewish Home list, Uri Ariel and Betzalel Smotrich, choose to remain in the coalition, that would leave Netanyahu with an untenable 55-seat minority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, making it all but impossible for the government to survive no-confidence votes likely to be brought by the opposition.
The political crisis began Wednesday with the resignation of then-defense minister Avigdor 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 Netanyahu’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.”
In her own statement, Shaked said, “If we go to elections, it should be done as quickly as possible. I believe that Netanyahu will continue to be prime minister after the elections. I hope that Jewish Home will be the strongest party at his side, an ideologically right-wing party. But it will depend on the number of [Knesset] seats we get.”