Left to right in this composite photo: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, and Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White alliance of centrist parties. (Jack Guez, Jalaa Marey, Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Pressure Mounts in Israel for Unity Government

Netanyahu thwarts possible defection of right-wing political foe by giving him long-sought job as defense minister

In what might be called a classic example of the maxim “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Israel’s cabinet on Sunday approved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s choice of right-wing politician Naftali Bennett as defense minister.

Netanyahu named Bennett, a one-time ally who has long coveted the defense portfolio – not to mention Netanyahu’s job – on Friday. It was part of a deal aimed at keeping him from taking his New Right party out of a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc that Netanyahu and his Likud are using as a bulwark against efforts by centrist leader Benny Gantz to form a government.

Yonatan Freeman, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the country is now intently watching two clocks.

“The first is counting down to the end of the period for the formation of a new government [by Gantz]. The second is counting down to some sort of security situation,” he told The Media Line, referring to dangers the country is facing from Iran, its Lebanese proxy Hizbullah, and Hamas, the Islamist ruler of the Gaza Strip.

Gantz has a little less than two weeks to form a government under a mandate Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave him after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition of his own. Rivlin has proposed that both men come to a power-sharing agreement whereby Netanyahu serves as prime minister first, followed by Gantz.

But this is problematic.

Among other things, Gantz promised his voters that he would not be part of a government led by Netanyahu, who is facing three criminal indictments for alleged corruption. He also fears that before there can be a rotation, Netanyahu will find a way to remain in power, something political and legal observers feel could be used as leverage to avoid going to trial.

As for Netanyahu, he prefers not to enter any government without his bloc intact. This deeply troubles part of Gantz’s Blue and White, an alliance of three moderate parties, one of which is led by a politician who has made it his life’s work to oppose the country’s potent ultra-Orthodox power-players.

Thus far, neither is willing to compromise, something necessary for the unity Rivlin craves.

“Each side has to give up one of its demands,” Shmuel Sandler, of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line. “Netanyahu has to give up his alliance with the religious parties, and Gantz has to give up his demand that he should be the first to serve as prime minister.”

Enter Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party.

Yisrael Beytenu should be firmly on the Right with Netanyahu. But just like Gantz’s political associate, Liberman, too, despises the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners, and he remained a holdout when Netanyahu was trying to form a government, earning his so-far undying enmity.

On Sunday, Liberman lashed out at the prime minister.

“Netanyahu’s slander and accusations against me and others, together with his inability to make a simple decision to separate himself from the ultra-Orthodox-messianic bloc [of parties], raise a huge question mark concerning his leadership skills and the considerations that guide him,” he said in a statement.

Opinion polls show that most Israelis adamantly oppose to a third election in less than a year, although Bar-Ilan’s Sandler says it would “not lead to a significant difference from the results” of the first two elections.

“The country is divided,” he said, adding that until a new government is formed, “the caretaker government now in place can’t do very much. The big cost is that we do things on a daily basis instead of [for] the long term.”

This, too, seems to bother Liberman, who on Sunday had no kind words for Gantz, either.

“Benny Gantz’s stalling on a decision to accept the president’s proposal raises tough questions concerning [his] leadership and decision-making ability,” the Yisrael Beytenu leader complained.

In an indication of how far he might go to save Israel from voting yet again, there have been reports that Liberman – who has rarely, if ever, had a kind word for Israel’s Arab-majority parties – might be willing to support a minority government led by Gantz, even if this means relying on support from the outside by these very parties.

“I think he might allow the forming of such a government under the premise that this is a one-time deal,” Freeman said – “and that Gantz won’t promise them anything.”

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