Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Sunday in a reshuffle of his interim government as he gears up for the September elections.
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the two acting ministers were ousted from their posts, without elaborating. Explaining the sudden termination, officials told Hebrew media the pair could not hold such “sensitive” positions for six months after they failed to be reelected by the public.
The move, however, was widely seen as designed to prevent the once-popular right-wing ministers from using their positions to bolster their campaigns for the fall vote.
Bennett and Shaked’s New Right party failed to clear the electoral threshold in the April 9 election, and they are no longer members of the Knesset, but remained part of the cabinet for the time being. The two are expected to run again in September, though it remains unclear whether they will run together, and if so whether they will do so independently as the New Right or in a merger with other right-wing parties.
Bennett showed up at the cabinet meeting on Sunday afternoon, after skipping the gathering for weeks after the election. He and Shaked were fired hours after reports emerged that Netanyahu had rejected a call to reserve a slot for Shaked on the Likud party slate.
Though Bennett and Netanyahu have a long history of political cooperation — and the prime minister, should he again come out ahead in the next vote and be tasked with forming the government, could find himself dependent on Bennett’s support — the two politicians have also frequently clashed publicly and bitterly.
In a joint statement, Bennett and Shaked said they would cooperate with their replacements to ensure a smooth transition.
“From the bottom of our hearts, we thank the people of Israel for the rare privilege to serve them as ministers of education and justice,” they said.
“Everything we have done was for the good of the State of Israel and its citizens. We will hand over the offices we chaired in an organized fashion, to the ministers who will replace us, to ensure a smooth transition and so that the next school year will open in order.”
Likud MK David Bitan acknowledged in an interview that the step was taken to hurt Bennett and Shaked politically. “If they lost the elections, why give them the advantage in their campaign now?” he asked the Kan public broadcaster.
According to a television report on Saturday, Netanyahu plans to fill the vacated cabinet seats with members of his own Likud party.
According to Channel 13, Netanyahu and his advisers have discussed appointing Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin as immigration and absorption minister to help Likud in its outreach efforts to Russian-speaking Israelis during the September election campaign.
As a native Russian speaker and immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Elkin, Likud believes, can help draw votes away from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, the traditional home of Russian-speaking immigrants.
Netanyahu is reportedly hoping to punish Liberman and even deprive him of the necessary number of votes to enter parliament in retribution for the latter’s refusal to join a coalition under the terms on offer, causing Netanyahu to fail to build a government last week.
The current immigration minister, Yoav Gallant, would be appointed to a different ministerial portfolio, the report said. Gallant, who was appointed minister after defecting to Likud from Kulanu ahead of April’s elections, would likely be given a promotion to a more senior cabinet post.
The Knesset on Wednesday night voted to disband itself and called new elections for September 17, after Netanyahu failed to broker a compromise between Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Initial polls have suggested Liberman may emerge from the coalition standoff in a stronger position, and increase his party’s five Knesset seats to eight or nine in the September election. The polls published on Thursday night also predicted Netanyahu’s Likud staying in the lead with 35 or 36 seats in the Knesset.
Israel’s political map is likely to change in the weeks ahead of the September election, with media reports suggesting that Bennett could lead a new right-wing alliance, Labor mulling a new leader and possibly merging with Meretz or Blue and White, and the Arab parties running on a joint list.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.