Bennett's Party Warns Netanyahu: Give Us Defense Portfolio or We'll Quit Coalition

Netanyahu's coalition hangs by a thread with a thin 61-59 majority following Avigdor Lieberman's resignation. If Habayit Hayehudi leaves the coalition, it would force early elections

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Israeli Education minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 12, 2018.
Israeli Education minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 12, 2018.Credit: \ POOL/ REUTERS

The right-wing Habayit Hayehudi political party warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday that it would force early elections if its leader, Naftali Bennett, was not appointed defense minister instead of Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned earlier in the day.

The party unanimously decided Wednesday evening to demand the defense portfolio, or else there was "no point in continuing the existence of the current government."

"It's time, without the defense portfolio Habayit Hayehudi will not continue as partner in government," MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) said Wednesday.

Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, at his gravesite in Sde Boker Israel November 14, 2018.Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Netanyahu held consultations Wednesday night in his Jerusalem residence on the question of whether to call early elections or accept Bennett's ultimatum. Netanyahu has not rejected Bennett's demand out of hand and is considering it, although his inclinations seems to be to reject it and act as defense minister himself while allowing Bennett to dissolve the government.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that he would resign on Wednesday in the wake of a cease-fire with Hamas, which he called "surrender to terror." If his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdraws from the ruling coalition, this could spell early elections unless Netanyahu manages to stabilize the government.

>> Defense minister resigns, firing first salvo of Israeli elections. The timing couldn't be worse for Netanyahu | Explained ■ Why Netanyahu will do almost anything for a Gaza cease-fire (and it has nothing to do with peace) | Analysis

Palestinians step on a poster depicting Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman as they celebrate after Lieberman announced his resignation, in Gaza City November 14, 2018. Credit: \ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

Netanyahu also held consultations on Wednesday with coalition heads and Likud officials in an effort to find a solution to the political crisis. A senior source in Likud, Netanyahu's party, said that elections are not necessarily the next step and added that Netanyahu will initially take on Lieberman's portfolio.

Several ministers have spoken to Netanyahu in an attempt to convince him to give Bennett the role in order to preserve the coalition, including United Torah Judaism's chairman Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Arye Dery.

Netanyahu's coalition now hangs by a thread with a thin 61 seats majority in the Knesset, meaning he cannot afford to lose support from any other allies in the 120-seats Israeli parliament.

Knesset member Moti Yogev, also from Habayit Hayehudi, called Lieberman's resignation "a way of escaping responsibility" and reiterated the demand for Bennett to get the defense portfolio.

Netanyahu defended the cease-fire reached with Palestinian factions in Gaza, saying on Wednesday that "leadership is not doing the easy thing. Leadership is doing the right thing, even if it's difficult." Speaking at a memorial for David Ben-Gurion in the Negev, Netanyahu said that Hamas "begged for a cease-fire, and they know very well why." Netanyahu said he is attentive to protests of residents in Israel's south, "but together with the security chiefs I see the general picture of Israel's security."

Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza reached a cease-fire on Tuesday evening after three days of hostilities. Some 460 rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel over the past few days. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted 100 of them. The military said it struck over 160 targets in Gaza.

Hundreds of Israelis took the streets in the southern town of Sderot to protest the cease-fire. Several demonstrators blocked the road at the entrance to the city and burned tires; policemen who were at the scene confronted some of them.

Militants in the strip hailed Lieberman's resignation as a victory, calling it "an admission of [Israel's] defeat and helplessness in the face of the Palestinian resistance forces." The news, he added, "is an important political victory for Gaza, which – by standing firm against the Israeli aggression – succeeded in causing a political earthquake in Israel." Islamic Jihad also welcomed Lieberman's resignation, calling it "a lesson for whoever wants to test the resistance in Gaza."

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