After Avigdor Liberman quits and urges new elections

Jewish Home in ultimatum to Netanyahu: Give us Defense Ministry or we leave

Party officials say they will pull out of government, forcing new elections, if the PM doesn’t appoint Bennett as Liberman’s successor

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jewish Home presented an ultimatum to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, with the party saying it will leave the coalition and force new elections if its leader Naftali Bennett is not made defense minister following Avigdor Liberman’s resignation from the position.

“It’s either the Defense Ministry or we are out,” party officials told The Times of Israel. “This is our ultimatum to stay in the government.”

The demand came minutes after Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman announced that he would be resigning as defense minister and called for the government to be dismantled and for new elections to be held.

“I am here to announce my resignation from the government,” Liberman said at a hastily organized press conference at the Knesset after a Yisrael Beytenu party meeting, during which he told MKs of his decision.

Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from defense portfolio during a Jerusalem press conference, November 14, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Liberman said his decision came in light of the ceasefire reportedly agreed on Tuesday between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza following an unprecedentedly intense two-day rocket barrage on Israel’s south.

A day earlier, Liberman, Bennett and other ministers severely criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the decision.

“What happened yesterday, the ceasefire, together with the deal with Hamas, is a capitulation to terror. There is no other way of explaining it,” Liberman told reporters.

He concluded his prepared statement by calling for elections to be held “at the soonest possible date.” During a subsequent question-and-answer session he predicted that right-wing voters would “see through the other parties’ hypocrisy” and reward his Yisrael Beytenu party with 20 Knesset seats.

Jewish Home Knesset faction chair MK Shuli Moalem-Rafaeli said elections did not need to take place immediately, but that her party would “not be able to continue as a coalition partner if the Defense Ministry is not given to Bennett.”

A Likud source said in response that there “no need to go to elections at this time of sensitive security,” despite the coalition losing five seats with Yisrael Beytenu’s expected exit. The source said that Netanyahu would serve as acting defense minister, despite already serving at the helm of the Foreign and Health ministries in addition to the duties of the premiership.

Without Yisrael Beytenu, the coalition will hold a paper-thin majority in the 120 seat Knesset. New elections must be held within the coming 12 months.

The security cabinet reportedly agreed to the ceasefire with Hamas on Tuesday afternoon, in a decision that several cabinet ministers later said they opposed. The decision was slammed by some opposition leaders, who called it a capitulation to terror after a deadly two-day conflagration that saw hundreds of rockets and mortar shells fired at southern Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (C) leads discussions at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2018 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Channel 10 news reported that at least four senior ministers who attended the cabinet meeting opposed the decision, which was made by Netanyahu without a vote. But Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, who was at the meeting, said the ministers all accepted the decision.

The ceasefire was hailed by Hamas as a victory ostensibly imposed on Israel on Hamas’s terms. Rocket fire at Israel came to a halt on Tuesday afternoon, after two days of incessant attacks.

Liberman, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett proposed an alternative response, but it was rejected by the other ministers at the meeting, according to Channel 10.

Missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system in the south of Israel destroy incoming missiles fired at Israel from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza above Ashkelon on November 13, 2018. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Over 460 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel over the course of 25 hours, the army said. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted over 100 of them. Most of the rest landed in open fields, but dozens landed inside Israeli cities and towns, killing one person, injuring dozens more and causing significant property damage.

In response to the rocket and mortar attacks, the Israeli military said it targeted approximately 160 sites in the Gaza Strip connected to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups, including four facilities that the army designated as “key strategic assets.”

Liberman has clashed frequently with Bennett, whose religious-nationalist party will compete with Liberman’s secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu over the votes of many hawkish Israelis in the upcoming Knesset elections.

The two have been trading barbs in recent weeks, with Bennett accusing Liberman of being soft on Gaza and Liberman replying in kind..

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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