Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have appointed Naftali Bennett this week as defense minister, but a report Tuesday said he has admitted to only doing so for political purposes related to coalition negotiations.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu has been personally briefing ministers from his Likud party in recent days before they give media interviews, asking them to explain he only tapped Bennett because he felt compelled to in light of information suggesting the New Right lawmaker was planning to join forces with Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
“I had to thwart that option,” Netanyahu reportedly said.
The report cited an unnamed minister as saying Netanyahu gave the briefings to make sure Bennett didn’t earn political capital at his expense.
It is a temporary position, since Israel currently has a transitional government, with Gantz currently attempting to form a coalition, and Netanyahu at odds with him over the terms of a possible unity partnership.
As Bennett entered his new job Tuesday, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip was launching salvos of rocket fire toward Israel following the targeted killing of one of its top commanders.
Shortly after taking office, Bennett, on the advice of defense officials, declared a “special situation” in the home front for communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Strip, temporarily granting authorities greater jurisdiction over the civilian population in order to streamline security efforts.
Netanyahu, who had served as defense minister since Avigdor Liberman’s resignation late last year, passed the torch to Bennett during a late-morning security assessment with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The cabinet approved Bennett’s appointment as interim defense minister on Sunday, amid internal grumbling from Likud ministers and a dissenting vote by one of them, Yoav Gallant. Netanyahu had agreed to the appointment as part of a deal that saw Likud and New Right merge their factions in the Knesset.
Over the weekend, members of Netanyahu’s party indeed told media outlets the appointment had been a strategic move aimed at ensuring continued right-wing support for the prime minister in the ongoing coalition talks.
Bennett and his political ally Ayelet 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 in the past 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.
In calling the bluff in December 2018, Likud tweeted that “the security of Israel is above politics and the defense portfolio is not a job arrangement for Naftali Bennett,” adding that Bennett was acting “childishly” and “desperately.”
Over the past few years, Likud has made many similar statements against the hardline Bennett, even charging that he was “not part” of the right wing.
Judah Ari Gross and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.