Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appoint a foreign minister in the coming days, according to reports on Sunday, amid a coalition crisis that is threatening to bring down his government and hasten elections.
Hebrew-language media reported Sunday that Netanyahu would likely appoint 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.
Shortly after the announcement, the Jewish Home party said Netanyahu’s announcement of the appointment of a foreign minister “does not change anything” regarding its demand Naftali Bennett be made defense minister.
“This is a government that is nominally right-wing but acts left-wing,” the right-wing coalition party said in a statement. “The government is a government with leftist policies, a collapsed deterrence against Hamas, the failure to evacuate Khan al-Ahmar, a weak policy toward terrorists and their families after terror attacks.”
The party said that if Bennett is not made defense minister “we should go to immediate elections. Without handing over the defense portfolio to Minister Bennett in order to extricate Israel from its severe security crisis, there is no point in having a leftist government.”
Netanyahu on Sunday evening was heading into a meeting with top coalition partner, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, in a “last effort” to save his government. Following the meeting, the prime minister was expected to make a public statement outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv.
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. He said he would try to convince Kahlon and his centrist Kulanu party to stay in the fold.
“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 the past two elections in which the Labor Party came to power.
“We need to do everything we can to prevent repeating these mistakes,” he added.
The sudden coalition crisis was sparked by the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had demanded a stronger Israeli response to the massive flareup in violence in the Gaza Strip last week.
The departure of Lieberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party leaves the coalition with a razor-thin two-seat edge over the opposition in the 120-member Knesset. Netanyahu’s other coalition partners say that governing with such a small majority is untenable, and have called for early elections.
Bennett, the head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, has already 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. The government must have the backing of at least half of the 120-seat Knesset to survive no-confidence motions.
On Sunday, Netanyahu delayed a vote to reinstate a senior Jewish Home lawmaker as deputy defense minister, drawing a furious response from the party.
According to government protocol, Deputy Minister Eli Ben Dahan lost his job when Liberman quit. But the party slammed Netanyahu for the “unfair move,” saying he effectively fired Ben Dahan by delaying the vote. The party said it would not vote with the coalition until the decision was reversed.
Netanyahu met Bennett on Friday, but conflicting reports emerged from their discussions. A source close to Bennett said the two had agreed that “it would be senseless to continue” with the same coalition, and that a date for early elections would be set on Sunday.
But within minutes, a statement from the Likud said that was wrong.
“The prime minister told Minister Bennett that rumors that a decision has been made to go to elections are not correct,” Netanyahu’s Likud Party said.
Bennett declined to comment to journalists when entering Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of his Jewish Home party said in a statement that appointing him defense minister was “the only justification” to keep the government together.
Most opinion polls show Netanyahu easily securing re-election, which would secure him a place in Israeli history as the country’s longest-serving leader. But several factors could trip him up, including a potential corruption indictment that could knock him out of contention.
Agencies contributed to this report.