Shaked: We were offered 2 small ministries or defense

Netanyahu appoints Bennett as defense minister; Likud, New Right to unite

Move is temporary until new government formed, widely seen as bid to prevent Bennett joining with Blue and White

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right during the Israel Prize award ceremony at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right during the Israel Prize award ceremony at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday offered New Right party leader Naftali Bennett the position of defense minister in a move widely seen as a bid to prevent Bennett joining a Blue and White-led government.

The premier’s Likud party said Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, met Bennett in the morning, during which the prime minister extended the offer. The appointment will be voted on at the next cabinet meeting, the party said.

New Right accepted the offer, said party number 2 Ayelet Shaked, adding that Netanyahu had offered it a choice of two smaller ministries, from Agriculture, Diaspora Affairs and Welfare, or just Defense.

“I am convinced this is correct for the state of Israel,” she tweeted.

Bennett and Shaked famously gave Netanyahu an ultimatum in 2018, threatening to pull out of his government if Bennett was not appointed defense minister, but ultimately backed down when Netanyahu called their bluff. Bennett has relentlessly criticized the government’s handling of violence from Hamas-run Gaza, demanding a harsher response, both when he served in the coalition and subsequently.

The current appointment is temporary.

“Bennett agreed in the event that a new government is formed, such as a broad unity or a narrow [right-wing] government, another person will be appointed to the position of defense minister,” the Likud statement said.

Likud also said it and New Right would “immediately” become a joint faction in the current Knesset, meaning that they would vote together as a united faction but not actually merge parties, the statement said.

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett (L) at a press conference in Ramat Gan announcing Shaked as the new leader of the New Right party, July 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White slammed the move a cynical ploy by Netanyahu to hang on to power.

“Netanyahu continues to mortgage every position and every consideration to his bid for immunity,” tweeted senior Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah, referring to Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid indictment in three corruption cases. “Is he afraid that Bennett will run away?”

Netanyahu fired Bennett, the former education minister, and his ally Shaked, the former justice minister, from the cabinet following the April election. He did this ostensibly due to their failure to enter the Knesset at the polls — though his move to do so before a new government had been formed was widely seen as a sign of soured ties.

Bennett entered the Knesset again after running on the Yamina slate, an alliance of right-wing parties, in the September elections. Yamina has since subsequently split into its original factions.

Israel Hayom, a newspaper seen as very close to Netanyahu, reported last month that the two had grown closer since September’s election, in light of the ongoing political crisis and the right’s inability to form a government following the last two elections.

The paper said the two were in frequent contact to discuss strategy and possible political scenarios.

Bennett and Shaked, as New Right, are part of a bloc of 55 MKs that have vowed to only back Netanyahu for the role of prime minister following the September vote. But lacking a Knesset majority due to Yisrael Beytenu’s refusal to sit with religious parties, Netanyahu failed in his bid to form a government after the September election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his right-wing and religious allies, in the Knesset on November 4, 2019 (Courtesy)

Earlier Friday Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz said he was doubtful as to whether Likud was genuinely interested in forming a unity government, and said his party was looking at “alternatives” to such a coalition, without giving details.

Gantz, on the 16th of his 28-day race to attempt to form a government, attacked Likud’s insistence of negotiating only as a single bloc of 55 MKs that include ultra-Orthodox and national-religious parties.

“I fear Likud does not truly wish to reach a unity agreement as is required by the election results,” he wrote on Facebook. “Anyone refusing to let go of the restrictive and obstructive bloc, who is not prepared to seriously discuss the basic principles of a future government — isn’t actually interested in forming a government.”

He accused Netanyahu of pushing Israel towards a third election within a year, which would be “a disaster for the country.”

But, he said, his party was “examining other alternatives in case the negotiations with Likud do not bear fruit.

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the ADL’s Israel Social Cohesion conference in Airport City near Tel Aviv on November 5, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

“Naturally, there are things done behind closed doors that I cannot give details on at this time, but we will do everything to form a government and prevent further, costly and unnecessary elections.”

In response, Netanyahu in a statement accused Gantz of “using every excuse in order not to form the government Israelis want: a national unity government.” He asserted that Likud “has agreed to many concessions to form a government” while Gantz was unwilling to do so and said it was the Blue and White chief who was leading the country to another national vote.

Amid political gridlock, Likud and Blue and White have regularly blamed each other for the failure to move forward in coalition talks, with each party seeking to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another election.

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