A Likud minister said Saturday that the imminent appointment of a temporary new defense minister, New Right MK Naftali Bennett, is aimed at shoring up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance of right-wing and religious parties, as Blue and White chief Benny Gantz works to assemble a coalition.
“The move was meant to prevent the disintegration of the bloc,” Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said at a cultural event in the Drom HaSharon Regional Council.
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.”
He likened the move to the 2016 appointment of Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman as defense chief, which increased that coalition’s majority from a razor-thin 61 seats.
Hanegbi’s comments were the first reaction by a top Likud official to Bennett being named defense minister on Friday. Days before the announcement, Likud Minister Yoav Galant said such a move would be a mistake and other lawmakers in the party have previously expressed interest in the post.
Hanegbi also said he would seek to be prime minister after Netanyahu leaves politics.
“I believe the chances are reasonable,” he said.
A number of Likud lawmakers have expressed interest in running for party leader once Netanyahu steps down, but so far only Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar has indicated he would challenge the premier if leadership primaries are called.
At the same event where Hanegbi spoke, MK Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Democratic Camp party said Netanyahu appointed Bennett to ensure he stays in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Netanyahu latched on to Bennett who allowed himself to be manipulated so that Netanyahu could stay in power a few more months,” she said.
Zandberg added: “Now we’ll have Naftali Bennett as defense minister, which personally scares me. This is the biggest warmonger.”
Blue and White MK Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud member replaced by Liberman as defense minister in 2016, slammed the appointment.
“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.”
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.
The cabinet is expected to formally confirm Bennett as defense chief on Sunday.
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.
That criticism was echoed by Yair Lapid, who is 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.