Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman signed an agreement Wednesday making the Yisrael Beiteinu leader the new defense minister and putting his right-wing party in the governing coalition.
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At a press conference, Netanyahu welcomed Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset members into the coalition but also called on opposition leader Isaac Herzog to bring his Zionist Union into a unity government to increase the chances for peace with the Palestinians.
“I am committed to peace with the Palestinians, my policy hasn’t changed,” Netanyhau said.
He said the new expanded coalition – increased to 66 from 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset – would improve political stability and help Israel “deal with the challenges in front of us, as well as the opportunities in front of us.”
Netanyahu said he valued Lieberman’s capabilities and that while the two had endured disagreements and exchanged “words that shouldn’t have been said,” that’s politics. Lieberman, in turn, thanked Netanyahu for adopting this approach and joked that he had undergone “surgery to lengthen his short fuse.”
The prime minister said his first priority was Israel’s security, but he was also committed to promoting the peace process with the Palestinians and pursuing “every avenue for peace.”
Netanyahu said he agreed with Herzog that there were regional opportunities to promote peace and called on the Zionist Union leader to join a “broad, genuine unity government that will bolster national unity and increase chances for peace.”
Lieberman said the coalition negotiations were “difficult and tough, but also very fair.” His goal was to “lead level-headed policy that will bring stability to the region and to our country .... The coalition will be a lot more stable and effective.”
“At the end of the day my intention [is] to provide security, and of course we all have a commitment, a strong commitment, to the peace, to the final-status agreement” with the Palestinians, he added.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said this remained to be seen. “Israel should learn the true lesson from making peace because there can be no peace and no stability in the region unless the Palestinian cause is resolved.”
Hamas, meanwhile, called Lieberman a “war criminal like all the leaders of the occupation.”
“His appointment as defense minister is an indication of the escalating racism and extremism,” the group said. “The international community should take a stance against this escalation, and those who live under the illusion of peace and normalization with Israel need to wake up from this dream.”
Both Netanyahu and Lieberman repeated some of their remarks in English. After Lieberman made his statement, Netanyahu joked that his partner’s English-language skills had improved greatly over the three decades they had known each other.
Herzog was less sanguine. “Unfortunately, Netanyahu ultimately chose to blink and chose to steer his government with Lieberman and Bennett in an extreme and dangerous direction,” he said, referring to Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.
As he put it, “Lieberman uttered a few words in English about the need for a diplomatic process, [but] God forbid not in Hebrew.”
Netanyahu, Lieberman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin – who led the coalition talks for the Likud party – met for a late-night negotiating session Tuesday night.
Earlier, a Likud source said that “it appears Yisrael Beiteinu has decided to be flexible about Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s offer and is willing to step back on some of its demands.”
Kahlon demanded that increased pension payments go to all eligible elderly people, not just immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as Lieberman originally demanded. Kahlon thus allocated 1.4 billion shekels for the issue.
Netanyahu will now have to solve another coalition crisis – the confrontation with Education Minister Bennett. A Likud source said Bennett’s demand to appoint a military adviser to the diplomatic-security cabinet was unacceptable to Likud, while Habayit Hayehudi insisted it would not backtrack.
Bennett threatened that if a military adviser is not appointed, his party will not support Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister. Bennett wants the military adviser to keep cabinet members abreast of security and defense affairs to help them do their job.
Bennett said he demanded the changes based on the lessons from the 2014 Gaza war and the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when many cabinet members did not receive quality intelligence.
Bennett also demands more fact-finding tours involving the ministers, and to increase their access to information. He called his demand a “basic need to prevent disinformation” and allow a proper monitoring of events for Israelis’ security. He said this was called for by law and necessitated by the lessons of past failures.