Political rivals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the appointment Friday of New Right MK Naftali Bennett as defense minister, castigating the move as an effort by Netanyahu to shore up support with his right-wing religious allies amid coalition deadlock and his expected indictment for corruption.
The centrist Blue and White party, whose leader Benny Gantz is currently trying to form a government, accused Netanyahu of putting his personal interests above those of Israel’s security and said Bennett was the wrong man for the defense job.
“Instead of advancing a government that the nation chose and wants, Netanyahu is continuing to fortify his immunity bloc and hunker down in it,” the party said in a statement.
“As usual with Netanyahu the cynical appointment of Bennett was done out of narrow political and personal interests,” Blue and White said. “Israel deserves a prime minister who puts Israel before everything.”
“The appointment of the ‘flavor of the day’ to the position of defense minister is not an appropriate act for the most sensitive system in the country,” Blue and White added.
Netanyahu’s offer of the defense portfolio to Bennett was widely seen as a bid to prevent New Right from joining a government led by Gantz, who was tasked with assembling a coalition when the incumbent prime minister failed to do so after the September 17 elections.
Following those elections, in which neither Gantz nor Netanyahu secured a majority of Knesset seats together with their respective allies, the Likud chief agreed with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious parties to act in coalition negotiations as a single bloc and only enter a government together.
The bloc has been a major stumbling block in talks between Likud and Blue and White. The two have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress and negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another election.
That criticism was echoed by Yair Lapid, the No. 2 in Blue and White.
“There is no way to count the times that [Netanyahu] called Bennett childish and irresponsible. Now he put into his hands the system responsible for the lives of our kids,” Lapid tweeted.
“Because of his criminal cases, Bibi is putting his narrow personal interests before the country,” added Lapid, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three graft cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and claimed the investigations are an effort by the media, left-wing politicians, state prosecutors and law enforcement to boot him from office.
Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Democratic Camp party, called the appointment a “contemptible trick” and cast doubt on Netanyahu’s ability to name ministers in a caretaker government.
“The appointment of ministers in a transition government is invalid: Another step in Netanyahu’s quest to destroy democracy,” he wrote on Twitter.
Because of Netanyahu’s “wanton moves,” Horowitz called on Gantz to work toward a center-left government. “The Bibi era has finished,” he said.
Reactions from right-wing and religious parties to the appointment, announced right before the start of Shabbat, were muted.
Following reports earlier in the week that Netanyahu was considering offering Bennett a ministry, Likud Minister Yoav Galant said in a radio interview it would be a mistake to make the New Right chief defense minister.
In addition to tapping Bennett as defense chief, Netanyahu also agreed with the New Right leader that the parties would act as joint faction in the Knesset, meaning that they would vote together as a united faction but not actually merge parties.
The appointment, which is temporary, will be voted on at the next cabinet meeting.
New Right co-leader Ayelet Shaked said Netanyahu offered her and Bennet the choice of the agriculture, diaspora and welfare ministries, or just defense.
“I am convinced this is correct for the state of Israel,” she tweeted.
Bennett and Shaked famously gave Netanyahu an ultimatum in 2018, threatening to pull out of his government if Bennett was not appointed defense minister, but ultimately backed down when Netanyahu called their bluff.
Netanyahu fired Bennett, the former education minister, and his ally Shaked, the former justice minister, from the cabinet following the April election. He did this ostensibly due to their failure to enter the Knesset at the polls — though his move to do so before a new government had been formed was widely seen as a sign of soured ties.
Bennett later entered the Knesset again after running on the Yamina slate, an alliance of right-wing parties, in the September elections. However, Yamina has since subsequently split into its original factions.