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Bennett becomes defence minister, Lieberman issues ultimatum 

What happened: Naftali Bennett became Israel’s defence minister yesterday, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu who held the post for 11 months. The appointment is part of a deal where the three MKs from the New Right will join the Likud.

  • On Saturday evening Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman said Benny Gantz must agree to accept the president’s proposal (whereby Netanyahu serves first as Prime Minister in a rotation) and that Netanyahu agree to drop what Lieberman refers to as his “ultra-Orthodox-messianic bloc.” He warned both sides: “I expect both men to make the right decision… Anyone who doesn’t know how to make the right decision, we’ll support the other side.”

Context: Likud and the New Right are now the largest party in the Knesset with 36 seats, compared to Blue and White’s 34 seats. The deal was a defensive move by Netanyahu to prevent Blue and White enticing Bennett and Shaked away from the right wing bloc. Likud sources said that Bennett had agreed that if a broad unity government or a narrow government were to be formed, someone else would be appointed defence minister.

  • Bennett is highly regarded by some as a strategic thinker, notably when he was part of the security cabinet during the Gaza war of Summer 2014. He has consistently expressed hawkish positions in response to Hamas, up until last week. After the rocket fire at Sderot, he surprisingly changed his mind, supporting Netanyahu and suggesting the incident be contained.
  • Likud Minister Yoav Gallant, a former Maj Gen criticised the appointment as, “irresponsible and unsuitable.” In the cabinet he was the only dissenting voice, warning: “Israel is in a complex and sensitive period of security… this appointment does not serve the security of the state and therefore I will vote against it.”
  • Ben Caspit in Maariv said: “Bennett’s crawl to the dubious status of a fifteen-minute defence minister in a transition government that lacks legitimacy turns him into what he swore that he would never be.” Yediot Ahronot called it a “cynical and cold decision that was made by Netanyahu.”
  • Lieberman’s proposal is part of his pressure tactics to ensure the creation of a centrist unity government with his party, Likud and Blue and White. If unity talks fail he still has the option to either support a centre-left minority government or return to the right-wing bloc.
  • Likud responded to his demands saying: “Netanyahu isn’t going to dismantle the right-wing bloc. There’s no chance.” Analysts assess that if Gantz wants to eventually be prime minister he must accept the president’s compromise proposal.​​​​​​​

Looking ahead: The deal between the Likud and the New Right places Bennett and Shaked’s political future in jeopardy. It is highly unlikely that senior Likud figures will allow their political rivals to join the Likud. If there is a third election they are unlikely to be able to regroup again with Jewish Home, leaving them potentially isolated as they were in April when they failed to get elected.

  • By issuing his ultimatum Lieberman reinforces his position as the kingmaker whose support will make or break any attempt to form a majority government.
  • Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has one more week to form a Government. If he fails, any member of Knesset who can present the endorsement of 61 MKs can have a go. Right now this is looking like an insurmountable task. The resulting deadlock would lead to another election in March 2020.

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