Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly told ministers in his coalition that he will not be able to appoint Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party to the defense minister post because of opposition to the move from other coalition partners, a development which likely puts Israel on course for early elections.
According to Channel 10 news, Netanyahu told ministers during meetings throughout the day that the main stumbling bloc to keeping the coalition together was the ultimatum from the national-religious Jewish Home party that its leader Bennett be given the newly vacated defense ministry, or it will topple the government.
According to reports on Channel 10 and Hadashot news, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who already called for elections in the wake of the sudden resignation this week of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, is vetoing Bennett’s appointment. Neither report cited sources from the closed-door meetings.
Netanyahu and Bennett are scheduled to meet on Friday, but with Kahlon, the head of the Kulanu party, and others including the Shas party pushing for an election, there’s little expectation that the meeting will avert an early return to the polls.
The developments suggest that Netanyahu will be unable to stabilize his narrow 61-seat coalition after the resignation of Liberman and the withdrawal of his Yisrael Beytenu faction.
During an education conference in Ramat Gan on Thursday, Bennett reiterated his demand for the Defense Ministry position.
Earlier, the heads of the Shas and Kulanu parties — Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Kahlon, respectively — urged that Netanyahu call elections and not attempt to hold the coalition together. Opposition leaders have also called for elections in light of the what they have branded the government failure to effectively handle the Gaza crisis.
While Netanyahu still maintains a healthy lead in polls, there is mounting anger against him and his Likud party for agreeing to an informal truce that put an end to the latest escalation in fighting with Hamas-run Gaza. On Thursday several hundred residents from the south protested in Tel Aviv, calling on Netanyahu to resign.
Anger over the ceasefire was amplified after a Likud cabinet minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, earlier Thursday labeled a volley of hundreds of rockets fired at southern Israel this week as “minor” because the Gaza terrorist groups were not targeting Tel Aviv. Hanegbi later apologized.
The debate now within the coalition, reports Thursday night indicated, is over when, not whether, there will be early general elections, which are formally set for the end of next year. Netanyahu reportedly prefers a later May date, while Kahlon and Deri prefer closer to March. According to Israel’s election law, once the Knesset votes on its own dissolution, a step that could take place within days, the country would begin a 90-day campaign to election day.
General elections are held on a Tuesday under Israeli law. The period from March through till the end of May is peppered with a number of national holidays including the Purim festival, the week-long Passover festival, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day, all of which limit the choices for an election day.
Liberman resigned Wednesday to protest the truce with the Hamas terror group that brought an end to a major flareup in violence.
On Tuesday evening, the security cabinet agreed to an informal ceasefire with Hamas in a decision that several cabinet ministers later said they opposed.
The decision was slammed by some opposition leaders, who called it a capitulation to terror after a deadly two-day conflagration that saw over 400 rockets and mortar shells fired at southern Israel. Netanyahu has defended the ceasefire deal that ended the worst escalation between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza since a 2014 war.