Senior ministers trade barbs ahead of Knesset winter session

Education Minister Naftali Bennett says that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has “forgotten what it means to be right-wing” • Lieberman responds: Bennett's jabs about security policy are “friendly fire” in coalition.

Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett speaks during the “Sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism” conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center on March 19, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett speaks during the “Sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism” conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center on March 19, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The Knesset winter session will open soon, under a cloud of uncertainty about whether the current government will go the distance or whether an early general election will be held.

Two cabinet ministers in particular are sniping at each other: Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beytenu).

Lieberman told Army Radio Tuesday that Bennett was “representing a messianic, ‎delusional right” and accused him of being “willing to sacrifice Israel’s ‎security for one more vote.” ‎

Bennett retorted: “Lieberman has forgotten what it means to be right-‎wing.”‎

Hitting back, Lieberman said that “Bennett has clearly launched his election ‎campaign, which is now verging on the absurd. It’s all about petty politics. ‎That’s his strategy. I guess I’m lucky he hasn’t blamed me for global ‎warming.”

Bennett countered by saying that “Lieberman’s security policy is weak. It’s the ‎exact opposite of what you would expect a right-wing government to do. ‎The only message it sends Hamas is that they can become more brazen.” ‎

On Sunday, Bennett discussed the ongoing riots along the Gaza border fence, during which Hamas-organized protesters hurled explosive devices at Israel Defense Forces on patrol.

“Over the past few days, we have witnessed the ‎dangerous results that the defense minister’s policy ‎of restraint and weakness has brought,” Bennett ‎said on Saturday.‎

‎“When it comes to the Gaza Strip, the more restraint ‎we show, the more terrorism we get. Incendiary kites ‎and balloons continue to threaten the residents of ‎the Gaza border communities, border riots are ‎getting worse and Palestinians breach IDF posts ‎without fear. ‎This is not how you manage security policy. This is ‎what failed policy looks like.”

On a tour of the Karnei Shomron settlement on Tuesday, Lieberman responded to Bennett’s accusation that he was “pulling the government to the left.”

“Obviously,” replied Lieberman.

“That’s why he [Bennett] lives in Ra’anana and I live in [the settlement] Nokdim in the Judean Desert. Bennett has apparently decided to dismantle the right-wing government from within. He has launched an election campaign, and this is definitely someone who is shooting friendly fire.

“I think we have a good right-wing government that functions, and disbanding it is simply wrong. Given all the security challenges—both in the south and the north—as well as what we’re seeing in the Palestinian Authority, we need to focus on matters of security,” said Lieberman.

He said he had suggested that Bennett “focus on education issues, but because he doesn’t seem to be interested in either education or defense, he is focused on politics. I’m trying to focus on defense.”

‘It will be hard to work this way’

Senior Likud officials have expressed disapproval of the two ministers’ conduct.

“We cannot start the winter session this way,” a coalition minister told Israel Hayom on Tuesday.

“On one hand, they [Lieberman and Bennett] don’t want an early election, and on the other, neither of them can resist fighting about everything that gets them attention. It will be hard to work this way. If every second person proposes a populist bill to promote himself, that will cause total chaos.

“We need to meet and decide whether we can keep working together well. If so, great. If not, rather than holding an early election after bitter fighting, it would be better to have one now, nicely,” the minister said.

Opposition MKs and party heads have been quick to criticize the public battle between the education and defense ministers.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay posted on Twitter, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “kindergarten cabinet.”

“While IDF soldiers are fighting night after night at the border fence and the residents of Gaza border communities watch their fields burn, Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennett are fighting over who will get more votes on the right. For what? What does it matter how many votes they get if it comes at the expense of national security?” tweeted Gabbay.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tweeted: “Netanyahu has lost control of the cabinet. The war of slander between Bennett and Lieberman is harming security, harming the country and mostly making Hamas happy.”

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