The cabinet on Sunday approved New Right MK Naftali Bennett as temporary defense minister, with Likud minister Yoav Gallant the lone vote opposing the move.
Bennett will replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held the Defense Ministry portfolio since last November, when former defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned.
“Out of a deep sense of responsibility for the security of the State of Israel, I accepted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s request on Friday to serve as defense minister,” Bennett said in a statement, thanking the premier for his trust in him.
Bennett’s appointment, announced Friday, was criticized by some in Likud.
Last week, Gallant, a former IDF general and current immigration and absorption minister, said tapping Bennett for the post would be a mistake. He may have been gunning for the post himself.
Likud MK Yoav Kisch named Gallant on Sunday as a more suitable candidate than Bennett.
“I think that Bennett is really a worthy candidate, but I think there are better people in Likud like Gallant and [former Shin Bet security chief Avi] Dichter,” Kisch told Radio Jerusalem.
Bennett in the past had clashed with Netanyahu over Israel’s response to violence emanating from the Gaza Strip, advocating a more hawkish stance to the Hamas-ruled enclave. Campaigning ahead of the first round of elections in April, Bennett said Netanyahu should him make defense minister, promising to “open the gates of hell” on the Palestinian terror group.
Over the weekend, members of Netanyahu’s party said the appointment was a strategic move aimed at ensuring continued right-wing support for the prime minister in the ongoing coalition talks.
Likud’s Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Saturday that the appointment was aimed at shoring up Netanyahu’s alliance of right-wing and religious parties.
Hanegbi was referring to a bloc of 55 lawmakers Likud formed with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious factions following the September 17 elections. The parties agreed to present a united front in coalition talks and only enter a government together.
The bloc has been a major obstacle in negotiations between Blue and White and Likud, which have remained deadlocked since Gantz was tasked with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so last month.
Amid criticism from Blue and White and others over Netanyahu’s offering of the defense portfolio to Bennett, which was widely seen as designed to prevent New Right from joining a Gantz-led government, Hanegbi acknowledged the move was political, “just like every appointment to a senior position.”
Amid rumblings of discontent in Likud, Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home resigned Sunday from the Agriculture Ministry, fueling speculation Netanyahu would give the vacated office to a Likud member to stem the criticism.
Bennett’s appointment, which is temporary, was harshly criticized Friday by Blue and White, which linked it to the premier’s legal woes. The party accused Netanyahu of putting his personal interests above those of Israel’s security and said the New Right leader 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.
Blue and White MK Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud member replaced by Liberman as defense minister in 2016, also slammed the appointment Saturday.
“Even ‘defense minister,’ such a sensitive and complication position, Netanyahu is selling… for a few more days of grace in his race to escape from the defendant’s bench,” Ya’alon tweeted on Saturday. “Netanyahu only looks out for Netanyahu.”
Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.