Invoking Security Situation, Netanyahu Warns of 'Irresponsible' Early Elections: 'I Have a Clear Plan'

'I risked my life time after time to safeguard our lives here in the Land of Israel,' Netanyahu says as he assumes defense portfolio ■ Source says Bennett and Shaked will resign if Bennett not appointed defense minister

Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2018.
Gil Yohanan

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the coalition crisis in a statement to the nation Sunday evening, saying that in a period of unstable security, early elections are the wrong move.

"We are in a particularly complex security situation...In times like these, you do not overthrow a government. It's irresponsible. We have another full year until elections," Netanyahu said in a press conference in Tel Aviv after meeting Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

"We are in an intensifying battle, and in the middle of a battle we don't abandon our posts. In the middle of a battle we do not play politics. The security of the nation is beyond politics, and the security of the nation is also beyond personal concerns," Netanyahu added.

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Netanyahu said he warned the coalition party heads against dissolving the government. "I told them that we cannot repeat the mistakes that members of the government made in 1992 when they dissolved a Likud government, forming the government that gave us the disastrous Oslo Accords. I told them we cannot make the same mistakes as the government in 1999, when they dissolved and brought the Intifada upon us."

Listen: Why Netanyahu wants truce in Gaza and to delay elections as much as possible

Netanyahu also announced that he intends to keep the defense portfolio and said he understands the public's criticism of recent events in Gaza, but asserted he has a plan: "I will not say when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it."

Outgoing Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned last Wednesday over the cease-fire in Gaza, firing the opening salvo of the election season. Lieberman's departure left Netanyahu with a razor-thin majority of 61 Knesset seats. Habayit Hayehudi threatened right after Lieberman's resignation that if Netanyahu does not appoint Bennett as defense minister, the party will leave the coalition.

Netanyahu met with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the head of Kulanu, Sunday evening in a last-ditch effort to avoid early elections. Kahlon's office said the meeting ended without results and the two will meet again later in the week.

Sources in the Finance Minister's Office told Haaretz that the meeting was short and only lasted half an hour. According to the sources, Kahlon entered Netanyahu's office as IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was leaving. The sources added that the prime minister did not offer any concrete suggestions for the appointment of a defense or foreign minister, or for strengthening the coalition.

Earlier, sources close to Netanyahu said he plans to appoint a foreign minister. A senior Likud official told Haaretz that Netanyahu's decision was primarily technical in nature and was the result of concern that the High Court of Justice would not permit him to serve as both foreign minister and defense minister at the same time as prime minister.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a weekly cabinet meeting, October 18, 2018.
Emil Salman

The appointment of a foreign minister is also relevant if elections are called and the current government becomes a transitional government, the source said, because ministers cannot be appointed once it becomes a transitional government in the run-up to elections.

Responding to Netanyahu's speech, opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said: "With Bibi, security speeches are just election propoganda and Bennett has learned from the master. Every day, every speech, every political statement clarifies this – we cannot leave the country’s security in their hands... Those who mix politics with security cannot be responsible for the safety of Israeli citizens."

Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz also responded to Netanyahu speech, saying, "it is the obligation of policy makers to act responsibly, not to exploit our righteous and essential war of defense for personal or political gain." 

'All the way'

Following Netanyahu's speech, a source close to Bennett said the education minister and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is also a member of Habayit Hayehudi, intend to resign on Monday over Netanyahu's refusal to hand Bennett the defense portfolio. Habayit Hayehudi will hold a special press conference on the coalition crisis on Monday.

Bennett apparently told his aides that "he intends to go all the way" if Netanyahu will not give him the job. Other sources in Habayit Hayehudi, however, said that the party's upcoming press conference is an attempt to put pressure on Netanyahu to act, but it is still unclear at this stage if the process will end in resignation.

Bennett and Shaked have yet to respond.

The right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, which is headed by Bennett, said that Netanyahu's appointment of a foreign minister "doesn't matter one bit" and that immediate elections must be held if Bennett is not handed the defense portfolio. The party also accused the right-wing government of behaving like a leftist government.

The prime minister canceled his weekly meeting with coalition party heads in order to try and prevent his government's dissolution and delay the impending early elections. The weekly Likud minister's forum was also canceled. The cabinet meeting was held as scheduled.

In their meeting Thursday, Kahlon told Netanyahu that the right thing for the citizens and the economy of Israel is to call elections as soon as possible. He said that the current political situation does not allow for the necessary economic stability, and therefore the responsible thing to do is to form a new, strong and stable government. Kahlon stressed that he is willing to coordinate the move with the rest of the coalition partners.

Kahlon said Saturday in an interview to the Israel Television News Company that unless Netanyahu "pulls a rabbit from a hat" he will vote to dissolve the parliament on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Arye Dery also called on Thursday for elections "as soon as possible, for the sake of the country."