Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday night that he will take on the post of defense minister following Avigdor Liberman’s resignation, rejected calls for new elections, and said that Israel was in the midst of a military campaign, during which “you don’t play politics.”
During a highly anticipated speech delivered at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, which coincided with Israel’s main nightly news broadcasts, Netanyahu said it would be wrong and “irresponsible” to bring down the government and force new elections during “one of our most difficult security periods.”
“We are in them midst of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon during a campaign, you don’t play politics,” he said, in a stinging critique of Liberman, who resigned last week, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is threatening to follow suit. “The security of the state is above all else,” Netanyahu said.
In a further dig at Jewish Home chairman Bennett, who has demanded the defense minister’s job as a condition for staying in the coalition, Netanyahu said, “There is no place for politics or personal considerations,” when it comes to Israel’s security.
Bennett has threatened to bring down the government if he is not appointed defense minister. Without the Jewish Home, Netanyahu’s coalition would shrink from 61 seats to just 53 and lose the required majority of the 120-seat Knesset to survive no-confidence motions. Bennett, along with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, are planning to quit the government on Monday morning, according to television reports on Sunday night.
The prime minister said that he was the best person for the defense job and implored his coalition partners to “do the responsible thing for the sake of Israel” and back him.
“So you see that I am making every effort in recent days, every effort, to prevent unnecessary elections,” he said.
Touting his military experience in the Sayeret Matkal elite operations unit and his “years of having ordered many military operations” as prime minister, Netanyahu said that he “knows when to act and what to do” in moments of crisis.
Before the address, Netanyahu met at the Defense Ministry with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, his nominated successor Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman.
Citing criticism of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas that brought an end to a major flareup in violence in the Gaza Strip — despite the more than 400 rockets fired towards Israel in two days — Netanyahu said that some public anger may stem from that fact that “it is impossible to present you with some of the information.”
“You are only seeing a partial picture of the ongoing operation we are engaged in,” he said, adding that, “I will not say tonight when we will act and what we will do… but I have a clear plan.”
Earlier, Netanyahu met briefly with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to discuss the future of the coalition. Kahlon has said it is up to Netanyahu to choose his defense minister, but that he does not believe the coalition can function with only 61 members and therefore backs early elections. The meeting ended inconclusively, and the two are to meet again later in the week.
Liberman last Wednesday announced his resignation as defense minister because the prime minister had accepted an informal truce with Hamas, and slammed Netanyahu for “failing to instill Israel’s deterrence” against the Islamist terror group. “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 on Wednesday of the ceasefire deal.
“What we’re doing now as a state is buying short-term quiet, with the price being severe long-term damage to national security,” Liberman said, adding that early elections should be held “as soon as possible.”
Following Liberman’s resignation, Bennett said he could only remain in the government if he were to be appointed defense minister, so that he could “return Israel to winning again.”
Speaking at his weekly cabinet meeting earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu said it would be unwise to embark on a divisive election campaign during such a sensitive time for national security.
“It would be both unnecessary and incorrect to go to elections. We remember well what happened when elements inside the coalitions took down Likud governments in 1992 and in 1999,” Netanyahu said, noting two recent elections in which the Labor Party came to power.
“We need to do everything we can to prevent repeating these mistakes,” he added.
While Netanyahu made clear that he would not give in to Bennett’s demand, earlier Sunday, it was reported that the prime minister will appoint a foreign minister from his own party in the coming days.
Hebrew-language media reported Sunday that Netanyahu would likely select a Likud member as foreign minister, a post that he currently holds. Channel 10 news said Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz were being considered for the position.
Shortly after the reports were published, the Likud party released a statement saying the prime minister would “appoint ministers in the coming days,” without elaborating. Currently, the prime minister holds the foreign affairs, defense, health, and immigration absorption portfolios.