Netanyahu's Likud Announces Merger With Hayamin Hehadash; PM Expected to Tap Bennett as Defense Minister

Netanyahu surprisingly brings back into the fold two former ministers he had sacked as his concerns grow that they will unite with rival Benny Gantz

Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, in 2018.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party announced Friday afternoon that it is going to merge with Hayamin Hehadash, which is headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, once an aide who has been estranged from the premier.

Netanyahu is expected to tap Bennett, a former education minister he previously fired from his post, to be Israel's next defense minister. 

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 47Haaretz

>> Read more: Netanyahu just gave Bennett the gift of the defense portfolio. It's a sign he's losing his grip | Analysis

The selection of Bennett is the result of moves made soon after the election with the goal of joining Likud. Over the past week, Bennett maneuvered between Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz in an attempt to extract the maximum benefit from the three Knesset seats obtained by Hayamin Hehadash.

Shaked, who headed the Yamina alliance of right-wing parties in the election while Bennett was placed fourth on its roster, has been left out of the government. Shaked wrote on Twitter that Netnayahu offered her and Bennett two of the portfolios that were yet unfilled – agriculture, diaspora affairs, or social services —but that the two preferred the defense portfolio to two smaller ones.

Likud released a statement announcing that "Prime Minister Netanyahu and Hayamin Hehadash Chairman Naftali Bennett met this morning at the prime minister's office. The prime minister offered Bennett to appoint him as defense minister, and Naftali Bennett accepted the offer. The appointment will be brought before the government for approval at the upcoming government meeting."

Likud added that Bennett agreed that the role of defense minister will go to someone else if a new government is formed. 

The dramatic announcement by Likud arrives 13 days before Gantz's mandate to try and form a governing coalition is over. 

Over the past several days, Bennett was in advanced talks with Kahol Lavan to set up a government with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Netanyahu, who feared these talks would evolve into an actual political alliance, decided to act rapidly and to tap Bennett as defense minister in order to prevent the formation of such a bloc.

Gantz took to Facebook earlier Friday to state that his negotiation team met several times with Likud's team, but added that he doesn't believe Likud really wants to reach an agreement with him. "Apparently Likud Chairman Netanyahu decided to drag Israel into a third election," the former army chief of staff wrote. "It's a disaster for the country and I don't understand how Netanyahu, who understands the grave repercussions of such a move, is capable of doing it." 

Gantz noted that he had met in recent days with teams of Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union. However, the Kahol Lavan leader did not mention meeting with Hayamin Hehadash's team.  

Following Likud's announcement Friday, Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of trying to "strengthen his immunity base." Lapid was referring to right-wing parties such as Bennett's, many of whose leaders have declared in the past that they would endorse a law giving Netanyahu immunity from prosecution in the corruption cases against him. 

"Because of his criminal cases, Bibi is putting his personal interest ahead before the state. I can't count the amount of times he said Bennett was childish and irresponsible. Now he is giving him the sytem in charge of ensuring the safety of our children," Lapid added.

Earlier this week, Bennett rejected a proposal to be immediately appointed a minister in Netanyahu's transitional government; he also rejected a spot he had been offered on the defense cabinet. According to Bennett, he told Netanyahu that he wasn't interested and that "there is no need."

In June, Netanyahu abruptly fired then Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Bennett in the aftermath of the April elections. 

The two had unexpectedly fallen short of reaching the electoral threshold with their newly-formed party Hayamin Hehadash, but were supposed to remain in their posts until a new government would form.