In Appointing Bennett as Defense Chief, Netanyahu Only Has One Thing on His Mind

For the past few days Naftali Bennett has been acting like a top soccer player just before the last opportunity to pass the ball. On the one hand, rumor had it last week that his and Ayelet Shaked’s sliver of a party were in preliminary talks to join a minority government headed by Kahol Lavan. On the other hand, Bennett made sure to leverage the rumor so as to raise his price in the negotiations that really interested him, to join Likud.

The pressure worked: Benjamin Netanyahu, persuaded that Bennett might go with Kahol Lavan Chairman MK Benny Gantz, gave him the defense portfolio. That’s the job the prime minister refused to give Bennett exactly one year ago, after Yisrael Beteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman stepped down, thereby accelerating the political crisis that has us stuck in seemingly endless elections.

Ideology played a minor role here, if any. Bennett wanted to survive and realized that his chances of making it through a third election, presumably in March, were slim. Moreover, he’s been dreaming of becoming defense minister for a long time. He had little respect for Moshe Ya’alon when he held the position, and had even less for Lieberman. If they could be defense minister, so could he. And if that meant switching parties for the fourth time in a year, so be it, even at the price of drawing closer to Netanyahu, after all the bad blood between them in recent years.

Netanyahu and Bennett made a cynical bargain, even for Israel’s extreme politics. The appointment is for the duration of the transitional government, by a prime minister whose mandate to form the next coalition was already taken away from him. What’s worse, Likud even said, in the statement it issued Friday, that Bennett had agreed that in the event a unity government or narrow right-wing coalition is formed, another person would be appointed defense minister.

This shows contempt for the office of defense minister, and at a time when Netanyahu is declaring from every possible stage that security threats have grown immeasurably, particularly from Iran. If indeed we are headed for trouble, why would Netanyahu appoint as defense minister a man with whom he has clashed regularly for a year, whose skills he publicly disparaged and to whom he adamantly refused the position in the past?

This looks like a rerun of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister. Netanyahu also bad-mouthed Lieberman regularly before giving him the job in May 2016. It’s difficult, in fact impossible, to shake the impression that Netanyahu is only interested in aiding his own chances of survival, by reducing the already unlikely scenario of a minority government headed by Kahol Lavan. Netanyahu did not have a sudden epiphany in which he recognized Bennett’s understanding of security issues. He’s just trying keep Bennett out of Gantz’s embrace, with the goal of leading to a third election.

In any case, Bennett would be defense minister until June 2020, on the assumption that the next election is in March and it might be two or three months after that before a permanent government is installed. That is enough time for him to hang his picture alongside his predecessors in the hall outside the defense minister’s office.