Opposition leaders on Sunday night called for snap elections and accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “hypocrisy,” after the Israeli leader announced that he will also take the post of defense minister, amid a swirling coalition crisis.
Speaking at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said he will take over the job of defense chief following Avigdor Liberman’s resignation, rejected calls for new elections, and said that Israel was in the midst of a military campaign, during which “you don’t play politics.”
“Israel’s security really is the most important thing,” said Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay in response. “Mixing politics and security damaged the security of the residents in the south. Precisely because of that Israel needs to immediately go to elections. This government can be replaced with a government that really takes care of security, and truly believes that change is possible.”
The head of the left-wing Meretz party accused Netanyahu of using the Defense Ministry as a political chip.
“The hypocrisy of Netanyahu as he talks about the importance of the defense portfolio cries out to the heavens,” Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg said in a statement. “This is the same Netanyahu who just two years ago appointed to this sensitive position a cynical, inexperienced, and irresponsible man only due to considerations of political survival,” she added, referring to Liberman’s appointment as defense minister in May 2016.
Zandberg called for Netanyahu to be removed from office and accused him of deepening polarization in Israeli society.
The sudden coalition crisis was sparked by the resignation of former defense minister Liberman, who had demanded a stronger Israeli response to a massive flareup in violence in the Gaza Strip last week. Deprived of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, the coalition was left with just 61 Knesset seats to 59 in the opposition.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party then quickly threatened that if Bennett were not given the defense portfolio, it would pull its eight lawmakers out of the coalition, hastening elections. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who leads the Kulanu party, reportedly objected to giving Bennett the Defense Ministry post, but has also called for early elections.
Netanyahu’s announcement on Sunday came immediately after talks with Kahlon.
“The meeting between the finance minister and the prime minister ended without results,” a Kahlon spokesman said in a statement. “The two agreed to meet later in the week.”
Also Sunday night, Netanyahu’s allies in the cabinet blamed the political turmoil, which is expected to bring down the government, on the Kulanu and Jewish Home coalition parties.
“The responsibility for the right-wing government’s existence is on Bennett’s and Kahlon’s shoulders,” Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) said in a statement.
Echoing Akunis, Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) wrote on Facebook, “It is irresponsible on the part of coalition members to bring down such a good right-wing government.”
Also weighing in was Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, a fellow Likud minister.
“The security of the state requires the government continue until November . I believe Ministers Bennett and Kahlon understand this and will stop with the unnecessary threats. Let Bibi work,” she said, using the prime minister’s nickname.
Earlier, Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked scheduled a press conference for Monday at the Knesset. Hadashot television news, citing sources in the Jewish Home party, reported that the two senior ministers were expected to announce their resignations, forcing early elections.
Elections are currently scheduled to be held by November 2019.
Also Sunday, it was reported that Netanyahu will appoint a foreign minister in the coming days. Hebrew-language media said 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.