Knesset Approves Netanyahu's Appointment as Defense Minister by Narrow Margin

Habayit Hayehudi ministers Bennett and Shaked, who vowed to abstain, eventually voted in favor, allowing the prime minister his fourth portfolio

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 16, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's appointment as defense minister was approved Monday by a narrow majority in the Knesset, with 59 lawmakers voting in favor of the controversial appointment and 56 opposing it. The prime minister now holds the defense, immigration, health and foreign portolios.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partner, voted in favor of the appointment, despite having announced Sunday that they would abstain. Both have been vocally opposed to Netanyahu's appointment after demanding Bennett be nominated in place of Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned in November over Israel's Gaza policy.

Independent MK Orly Levi-Abekasis did not vote despite being present, while two Likud ministers, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, were absent – Regev for family reasons, Kara on sick leave.

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The debate that preceded the vote consisted primarily of the opposition castigating Netanyahu over the deteriorating security situation, particulary in the West Bank. Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said that during Netanyahu's first month as acting defense minister, Israel had lost its deterrence both in the West Bank and in Gaza.

"There is a wave of terror attacks on a level that we haven't had in a very long time," Lapid said, accusing the prime minister of failing to act. "Half of his cabinet (ministers) demonstrated against his security policy yesterday," Lapid added, referring to a settler protest outside Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, which was joined by several ministers, including some from the prime minister's own party.

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg added that Netanyahu is using the defense portfolio to improve his standing in the face of the investigations against him. Michal Rozin, also of Meretz, reminded that only a few months ago, the prime minister sought to change the law so that he could declare war in consultation solely with the defense minister. "We insisted that this remain the security cabinet's authority, because we said that the prime minister and the defense minister could be the same person," she said.

"The man who considers himself 'Mr. Security' but can’t manage to achieve security, wants to be defense minister," said Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli. "Netanyahu said today that the cabinet will advance the expulsion of terrorists’ families from their homes because it is unequivocally effective. Yet two hours previously the head of the Shin Bet security service left a security cabinet meeting where he said that evicting the families undermines the security situation."

During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Bennett and Shaked said they believed Netanyahu’s multiple posts had contributed to the deteriorating security situation and that they would abstain from the Knesset vote on his appointment. Netanyahu said that would be a stupid political move.

"There have been many defense ministers and prime ministers in the past, we’ve heard your ultimatum," Netanyahu told Bennett. The Habayit Hayehudi chairman retorted, "We've lost our deterrence, we have to unshackle the IDF from fake justice and fake morality. Israelis are being killed because the terrorists have stopped being afraid."