National security adviser said sent to persuade top rabbi to save coalition

Netanyahu confidant reportedly had head of National Security Council visit religious leader to persuade him of security threat so he would tell Bennett to stay; PMO denies report

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Avi Dichter, left, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, right, at an FADC meeting in the Knesset, November 19, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Avi Dichter, left, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, right, at an FADC meeting in the Knesset, November 19, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

A close adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recruited the country’s national security adviser and a top rabbi to persuade ministers from the Jewish Home party to stay in his coalition despite threatening to leave, a report said Monday.

According to Hadashot TV news, the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben Shabbat, paid a visit to the home of a rabbi who advises the Jewish Home party, after the religious leader asked for proof that Israel was in the midst of a security crisis before he would agree to persuade Education Minister Naftali Bennett not to bolt the coalition.

The report suggested that in the course of the meeting, Rabbi Haim Druckman may have been privy to security information that has not been publicly reported.

Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked had issued an ultimatum following Avigdor Liberman’s resignation last week as defense minister, demanding that Bennett be appointed as Liberman’s successor or the religious right-wing party would topple the government.

On Sunday night, Netanyahu rebuffed that demand, naming himself defense minister and calling on Jewish Home not to bolt at such a sensitive timing, saying Israel is in the middle of a military campaign and there are threats from the Gaza Strip.

Bennett and Shaked called a press conference on Monday morning, genuinely intending to resign, according to various Hebrew-language reports.

Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman, recipient of the Life Achievement award for 2012. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Urgently seeking to employ every method possible to convince them to stay, Netanyahu had his longtime confidant Natan Eshel speak with prominent Rabbi Haim Druckman — a member of a rabbinical council that advises the Jewish Home party on certain issues — to convince him to talk to Bennett and Shaked, Hadashot TV news reported Monday evening.

Druckman initially rejected Eshel’s request, saying he doesn’t get involved in politics, but eventually asked him for proof that the security situation was as volatile as Netanyahu had suggested.

And thus Ben Shabbat was called in around 11 p.m. to come to Rabbi Druckman’s home, according to the report. Both men live in the same community of Merkaz Shapira and are distant relatives.

However, Ben Shabbat allegedly arrived for that meeting as the prime minister’s representative. They had a private meeting in which the national security adviser gave details regarding the security situation that haven’t been reported in the media, the report cited sources in the religious community as saying.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver a statement to reporters on November 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Druckman then immediately called Bennett’s office, asking to speak with him urgently. The two spoke on Monday morning, with the rabbi saying: “I met a representative of Bibi, and I think you shouldn’t leave the government,” using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Netanyahu’s office denied the Hadashot report, saying Ben Shabbat “doesn’t involve himself in political issues. He never met or spoke with Natan Eshel and has no connection with him.”

Eshel refused to comment.

The report was met with criticism from the opposition, with Labor leader Avi Gabbay tweeting that it showed that “a prime minister who is willing to sacrifice our security to keep his position, needs to go home,” adding that “a red line has been crossed.”

However according to a report by Haaretz, Bennett and Shaked had already agreed prior to the reported intervention that they would not to leave the coalition.

The daily said that the two ministers had met in Tel Aviv late Sunday and decided to renege on their ultimatum, but updated few people of that decision.

The decision reportedly came following Netanyahu’s address, which cast their possible resignation as irresponsible and as toppling a right-wing government. It also came after sharp criticism by Jewish Home party members, who openly criticized the expected resignation in media interviews on Sunday night and Monday morning.

Senior party members such as MK Uri Ariel and other lawmakers weren’t updated ahead of time that Bennett and Shaked would be staying in the coalition, according to the report.

Despite heaping withering criticism on the government’s defense policies, Bennett said in the press conference that he would back Netanyahu in an effort to improve Israel’s “deep security crisis.”

The announcement came after Netanyahu urged his partners on Sunday night to stay the course in the current government, because Israel is in “one of our most complex periods in terms of security.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from his office following the ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during a press conference in the Knesset on November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The political crisis began Wednesday with the resignation of Liberman over his criticism of the government’s handling of the violence emanating from Gaza. The withdrawal of Liberman’s five-seat Yisrael Beytenu faction reduced the governing coalition to the slimmest 61-seat majority.

Immediately after the resignation, Bennett demanded the defense portfolio in Liberman’s stead, warning that without it he would withdraw his own eight-seat faction and ensure the toppling of the coalition and new elections.

On Sunday night, Netanyahu delivered a stinging critique of both party leaders. “We are in the middle of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon a campaign to play politics,” Netanyahu said. “The security of the country is above politics and personal considerations.”

Bennett admitted on Monday that his about-face would likely “cost a political price for me,” but, he added, “it doesn’t matter, it’s better for us to help the prime minister lead us to victory.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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