Netanyahu Offers Lieberman Defense Post, Dumps Herzog in Shock Move

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Reuters

At the end of a day of political shock and upheaval, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was on Wednesday night said to be close to accepting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of the defense minister post and bringing his party into the coalition.

Lieberman was taking the offer “very seriously,” a Likud source said, adding that the deal to bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition was just about sealed.

More on the Netanyahu-Lieberman pact: Netanyahu using Lieberman to break Israel’s oldest elite / Anshel Pfeffer | To preserve his rule, Bibi willing to stomach his greatest political rival / Yossi Verter | Israelis will pay for Netanyahu's reckless appointment / Haaretz Editorial | Lieberman's first battle as defense minister will be against IDF / Amos Harel | What really happened between Netanyahu and Herzog? / Ari Shavit | With Lieberman, Israelis should head for the bomb shelters / Gideon Levy | Israel now torn between rule of law and rule of ruthless power / Ravit Hecht | How Blair and Sissi tried to push Zionist Union into Netanyahu's coalition / Barak Ravid

Before Wednesday afternoon’s meeting with Netanyahu, Lieberman said at a press conference that “there is definitely something to talk about” if the prime minister agreed to his demands for the Defense Ministry and legislation giving anti-Israel terrorists the death penalty.

A senior Likud source said Netanyahu intended to offer the foreign ministry to the current defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), as compensation.

The offer to Lieberman comes on the heels of a bitter clash between the prime minister and Ya’alon over the recent controversial remarks by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, who said trends in Israeli society today were reminiscent of those in pre-Holocaust Germany.

The offer to Lieberman also comes as negotiations between Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to bring the latter’s party into the government appeared near completion. In a news conference Wednesday night, Herzog said angrily, “We have finished that chapter and are setting out to replace the Lieberman-Bennett government,” referring to Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. 

A source in Habayit Hayehudi said, “Lieberman entering the government is great. This would be a deeply right-wing government, the most right-wing ever in Israel.” The source added that Habayit Hayehudi is pleased at the prospect of Ya’alon’s replacement.

“There is a consensus that Ya’alon is a walking security disaster,” the source said. “He will leave and Lieberman, who took an active role part in the demonstrations for Elor Azaria [the Hebron shooter], will come in his place. He will bring this worldview into the defense establishment.”

Likud MK Benny Begin took the opposite view, blasting Netanyahu over the maneuver. “The idea to appoint MK Lieberman as defense minister is bizarre,” Begin told Channel 2. “This move displays a lack of responsibility toward the defense establishment and toward the citizens of Israel. The prime minister apparently prefers to trade the day-to-day difficulties of managing a limited coalition for difficulties that are several times greater, as well as for dangers that will arise from this appointment.”

The addition of Yisrael Beiteinu would bump up the coalition’s bare 61-MK majority to 67 seats. Netanyahu also offered Lieberman’s party the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, now held by Likud’s Zeev Elkin. A Likud source said that in the prospective cabinet reshuffle, Elkin would be given the Economy Ministry, now held by Netanyahu. Two other ministers who have expressed their interest in the economy portfolio are Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a confidant of Netanyahu who is in charge of the coalition negotiations on the prime minister’s behalf, and Culture Minister Miri Regev.

Lieberman’s demand for a law giving terrorists the death penalty enjoys support from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi ministers, but Netanyahu has blocked the proposal until now. Such a law would be designed to make it easier for Israel’s military courts, which are empowered to impose the death penalty, to hand down that sentence on convicted Palestinian terrorists. Israeli civil law prohibits the death penalty; the only convict ever hanged in the country was Adolf Eichmann in 1962.

Lieberman said at Wednesday’s press conference prior to his meeting with Netanyahu that he was dropping his demand for legislation on religion and state so as not to clash with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism. A Likud source said this was a condition set by the party for Yisrael Beiteinu’s inclusion in the government.

Lieberman is thus expected to set aside his campaign for a law allowing for common-law marriage (though not between same-sex partners), reform in Jewish conversion and a tougher law to draft Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s bureau said Netanyahu had called Litzman and informed him about the progress in the talks with Lieberman. A statement said Litzman, a member of United Torah Judaism, told Netanyahu he welcomes the expanding of the coalition, stressing his expectation that the agreed-upon government policies will remain unchanged, specifically the ultra-Orthodox draft law. 

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