(November 19, 2018 / JNS) Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and fellow party member Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced on Monday that they were standing by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his effort to stabilize the coalition and avert early elections.
Netanyahu has been sparing no effort to prevent snap elections in the wake of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s surprise resignation last week as defense minister.
Bennett had initially demanded to be named defense minister in Lieberman’s place, threatening to bolt the coalition if his demand was not met, but Netanyahu refused, saying he plans to keep the defense portfolio at this time.
Had Bennett withdrawn his party from the coalition, it would have lost its majority in the Knesset and mandated immediate elections.
In a special televised statement from the Israel Defense Forces’ headquarters in Tel Aviv on Sunday, Netanyahu urged his coalition partners to “act responsibly” and refrain from destabilizing the government further, saying, “We are facing one of our most complex security situations and at a time like this, you don’t bring down a government. At a time like this, you don’t call an election.”
Bennett and Shaked, however, were not convinced, and Habayit Hayehudi reiterated its demand to name Bennett the defense minister, saying that the government was not viable otherwise.
Still, in a press conference in Jerusalem on Monday, they backtracked the demand and announced that they were putting the good of the state ahead of their own political considerations and remaining in the coalition, withdrawing all demands.
“The State of Israel is experiencing a crisis of confidence with respect to security,” said Bennett. “The problem is not our enemies—ruthless enemies are nothing new to us. Now, like in the past, it’s not right to mix politics and security. There is no apocalypse on the horizon. We have enemies, but it is not the enemy that worries me. Something bad is happening to us from within.”
“For quite a few years now, including over the last decade of the governments headed by Netanyahu, Israel has stopped winning. … We restrain and restrain our troops, and our soldiers are now more afraid of the military advocate general than of [Hamas military leader] Yahya Sinwar. We have gone from defeating the enemy to containing the enemy and things that were once clear are suddenly questioned,” he continued.
Touching on last week’s cross-border clash with Gaza, Bennett said, “After over 530 Hamas rockets were fired on Israeli communities, we still try to convince ourselves that everything is fine and that Hamas is more deterred than it has ever been.”
“Common sense has given way to legal debates and our [defense] system has become cumbersome,” he argued. “Terrorists are awarded monthly salaries, their homes remain standing, their families are revered and we stand idly by, doing nothing to stop it.
“Hamas and Hezbollah grow more emboldened by the day because they believe we’re afraid to confront them,” he continued. “What the prime minister calls ’prudence’ is perceived by our enemies as hesitation and weakness—that’s a very fine line.”
“We have come to think that there is no solution for terrorism, terrorists and missiles; that there’s nothing we can do; that we can’t win. But there is something we can do and there is a solution: When Israel wants to win, we will win,” he declared.
Habayit Hayehudi was established “to offer a political alternative, to replace hesitation with determination, fatigue with initiative and awkwardness with confidence and our actions have proven that we can change the course,” said Bennett.
“To restore deterrence against our enemies and to instill creativity and innovation [in the military], I asked the prime minister to name me defense minister. After the previous defense minister proved to be an utter failure, I wanted to assume responsibility,” Bennett went on to say. “When the prime minister and I met on Friday, I made it clear that I was not giving him any ultimatums and appreciated him saying he viewed me as a candidate for the position. Still, for reasons that are his own, Netanyahu has decided to keep the defense portfolio for himself.”
“He promised the public to change course, to revolutionize defense and security. If the prime minister is serious, and I want to believe he is, then I say—we are pulling all of our political demands, and we will stand by you in the monumental task of ensuring that Israel is victorious again,” added Bennett. “I’m sure I’ll be made to pay a political price in the coming days, but that’s okay. I’ll get over it. I prefer to see the prime minister defeat me in politics than to see [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh defeat the State of Israel.”
Actions speak louder than words
Bennett’s decision to remain in the government still means the coalition numbers only 61 out of a total of 120 MKs, giving it a very narrow majority with which to function until the next election, set for November 2019.
“I don’t know how long this government can last with only 61 MKs and I haven’t changed my mind—this will be an uphill battle. But we’re willing to give it a try,” said Bennett.
“If the government chooses the right path, and acts like a true right-wing government, then it’s worth a try. The ball is in the prime minister’s court. The coming weeks will put the security revolution he promised to the test. … The public has had enough of declarations. They want actions. We will not be spectators on the sidelines and we will do our best to help,” Bennett concluded.
Shaked echoed Bennett’s sentiments, saying that Habayit Hayehudi viewed its spot in the coalition as a means of achieving a “national mission.” She added that the party “will never run away from responsibility or risk public interest for political gain.”
She reiterated that Bennett was “the best man for the job of defense minister,” and criticized Lieberman, saying, “Israel’s security policy, if there is one, has come to reflect hesitation. Striving for victory has been replaced by the defense minister’s shameful resignation—a gift he gave to Hamas that will forever be a mark of Cain.”
Habayit Hayehudi, she stated, “Will not augment the victory Lieberman gave to the terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. They, and the entire Middle East, are watching us. … Habayit Hayehudi has chosen to exercise national responsibility and we will continue being this government’s national conscience.”
Early rumors that Bennett was planning to withdraw Habayit Hayehudi out of the coalition infuriated senior officials in the religious Zionist camp, who accused him of preferring his own narrow political interests over those of his constituents.
Several religious Zionist rabbis have called an emergency meeting for later this week to discuss their options. One official told Israel Hayom that the rabbis were “seriously considering” forming a new religious Zionist party to counter Habayit Hayehudi, as the rabbis disapprove of the political direction in which Bennett is leading the party.