Despite protests, Knesset confirms Netanyahu as permanent defense minister

Despite protests, Knesset confirms Netanyahu as permanent defense minister

Opposition fumes as PM’s appointment passes by 59-56 majority; Jewish Home party ministers, who vowed to abstain, end up supporting motion

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with soldiers during a visit to the Northern Command base in Safed, December 11, 2018 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with soldiers during a visit to the Northern Command base in Safed, December 11, 2018 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Knesset members voted Monday to formalize the appointment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau as permanent defense minister. The vote came a month after the prime minister appointed himself to the role, from which Avigdor Liberman had resigned citing Israel’s policy toward Gaza.

Despite criticism of him holding several key ministerial portfolios, Netanyahu asserted at the time that Israel was in the midst of a military campaign, which he claimed he was the only person capable of steering the country through.

As well as serving as prime minister, Netanyahu is currently also the foreign minister, defense minister, health minister, and immigration and absorption minister. While he has served as defense minister since Liberman ended his tenure on November 18, Netanyahu has thus far only been in the role as a temporary replacement, an arrangement that can last no longer than three months and cannot be extended.

The permanent appointment passed in the Knesset by a majority of 59 supporters to 56 opposed.

Jewish Home party ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who had earlier said they would abstain, ended up supporting Netanyahu’s appointment.

Last month, Bennett demanded that he be named defense minister, threatening to leave the coalition and topple the government, but ultimately retracted his ultimatum.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2018. Netanyahu says he will take over temporarily as defense minister, as early elections loom. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Opposition lawmakers vociferously criticized the appointment.

“The State of Israel can’t allow itself to keep him as defense minister,” Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid said, adding that Netanyahu had failed to contain a wave of Palestinian terror attacks in his first month as defense chief.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called the appointment “scary,” saying Netanyahu’s “political weakness” — which she characterized as capitulating to demands from both settlers and the Hamas terror group — “is anything but security.”

Last week, Netanyahu told his cabinet that he will be sworn in as the permanent defense minister this week, subject to a Knesset vote, and plans to appoint someone else as immigration and absorption minister this week and another as foreign minister within a month.

Netanyahu has served as foreign minister since the formation of his government in 2015, a move that he initially justified by claiming he was keeping the position for the opposition Zionist Union head, in an attempt to entice them to join the government.

Several members of his own party were initially furious that he did not appoint one of them as foreign minister, with senior Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Israel Katz claiming to have been promised the portfolio by Netanyahu.

In April 2016, the Yesh Atid party submitted a petition to the High Court against the number of portfolios that Netanyahu had reserved for himself at the time: health, regional cooperation, communications, and foreign affairs, as well as the premiership.

The court ruled 4-1 that the prime minister could continue to hold all four portfolios, but three justices gave him eight months to reduce the load, saying they might review the situation if he did not, Haaretz reported at the time.

The justices said that it was hard to believe that Netanyahu could properly manage so many ministries, and that the situation was not appropriate in a democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 16, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Following Liberman’s resignation over Israel’s “capitulation to terror” in Gaza, Jewish Home chairman Bennett initially demanded to be made defense minister, with his party saying it would leave the government if he were not appointed to the position. But Netanyahu called his bluff and Bennett, the education minister, backed down from the ultimatum.

On Sunday Bennett joined a protest in Jerusalem, that called for a tougher response to a number of recent terror attacks in the West Bank, saying that Netanyahu had “promised a change in policy, to restore power” over Israel’s enemies, but “that has not happened yet.”

He then clashed with the prime minister at the weekly cabinet meeting, blaming him for the uptick in attacks and the potential renewed outbreak of regular, serious violence in the region.

Netanyahu was dealt a blow later in the day when a Hadashot TV news released a poll showing that majority of Israelis are unhappy with his performance as the head of Israel’s military establishment.

According to the poll, just seven percent of respondents said they were “very happy” with Netanyahu as defense minister, while a further 26% said they were “satisfied.” Conversely, 25% said they were “unsatisfied” and 33% said they were “very unhappy.”

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