Lieberman Sworn in as Defense Minister After Stormy Knesset Session

Far-right lawmaker and PM make joint statement after ceremony, stressing their commitment to two-state solution; before swearing in, lawmakers take podium to slam Netanyahu and new minister. 'This is a racist man, a violent man convicted of assaulting a person,' MK Rosenthal says.

Newly-appointed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (C), the head of hardline nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, is congratulated by MKs after he was sworn in on May 30, 2016, in Jerusalem.
Newly-appointed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (C), the head of hardline nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, is congratulated by MKs after he was sworn in on May 30, 2016, in Jerusalem. AFP

MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) was sworn in as defense minister in the Knesset on Monday evening, after a political crisis between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Habayit Heyudi's Naftali Bennett put the nomination in jeopardy. 

The Knesset voted 55 in favor of Lieberman's appointment and 43 apposed. MK Benny Begin (Likud) abstained. With his appointment as minister, Lieberman resigned from the Knesset, allowing his party's Yulia Melinkovski to take his place in the parliament in his stead.

Speaking at the Knesset after the ceremony, Netanyahu and Lieberman announced their commitment to the two-state solution and their willingness to negotiate with the Arab nations over the Arab Peace Initiative.

"We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples," Netanyahu said.

Lieberman seconded Netayahu's statement and said that his party was a long-time supporter of the two-state solution. "There was a lot of speculation about what the policy of the government would be. I want to remind people that for many years Yisrael Beytenu decided, and I spoke more than once about recognizing, that same solution of two states for two peoples," he said.

 "I think that President al-Sisi's speech was very important and has created a genuine opportunity. We must try to pick up the gauntlet," Lieberman added, referring to statements made by the Egyptian president earlier in May urging Israel to resume talks with the Palestinians and neighboring states.

"I absolutely agree that the Arab [Peace] Initiative also has some very, very positive elements that enable a serious dialogue with all our neighbors in the region," he added.

Lieberman, the leader of a far-right party which is mostly supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, joined Netanyahu's coalition earlier this month in a surprise move after negotiations to bring the center-left Zionist Union into the coalition failed.

Lieberman's swearing in as defense minister was uncertain until Sunday, as Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett posed an ultimatum to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his faction would vote against the nomination in the Knesset unless changes were made to the way the security cabinet works. 

The crisis was effectively ended when Bennett and Netanyahu accepted a proposal from Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who suggested that acting National Security Council chairman Yaakov Nagel or one of his deputies should serve as “security cabinet secretary,” responsible for briefing the ministers on defense and diplomatic developments.

Lieberman's swearing in ceremony was preceded by a lengthy discussion in the Knesset, when one-by-one opposition lawmakers took the podium to bash the nomination and criticize Netanyahu's political conduct in recent weeks. 

"I say to Israel what I said on the day I resigned Netanyahu's cabinet: Netanyahu isn't the solution – he's part of the problem," MK Amir Peretz (Labor) said. Peretz, who was subjected to criticism over his purported lack of credentials when he served as defense minister in Olmert's government, added: "I have no personal issue with Avigdor Lieberman. I have no problem with a civilian stepping into the Defense Ministry." He said that he's sure that Lieberman would tone down his rhetoric once he assumes office, and wished him luck. 

His fellow party member Miki Rosenthal was more critical. "This is a racist man, a violent man convicted of assaulting a person, this is an irresponsible man whose promises and actions have nothing to do with each other, and of course this is a corrupt man – Lieberman's ties with all sorts of questionable individuals is highly troubling," he said. 

MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) clarified that he wasn't concerned with the new defense minister. "There are more dangerous people. The prime minister, for example. Since the election he stole Lieberman's agenda and raised incitement against Arabs to a dangerous art form," he said. Tibi went on to attack Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog's attempts to join Netanyahu's coalition. "Usually, the opposition ousts the government. This time, the government ousted the opposition and crowned Lieberman."