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November 16, 2018 8:54 am

Israel’s Netanyahu Takes Over Defense Job as Coalition Falters

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset session, March 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun / File.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio in his government after his defense minister resigned this week, a spokesman for his Likud party said on Friday, fueling speculation of an early election.

Earlier Netanyahu met with key coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the HaBayit HaYehudi party, who had sought the post for himself, but the two men emerged without an agreement.

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government was rocked by Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday in protest at a ceasefire reached between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party has quit the coalition and its five MPs have withdrawn support for the government.

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After Bennett and Netanyahu’s meeting, a Likud spokesman said that for now Netanyahu would handle the defense portfolio himself.

The premier then spoke by phone with the rest of his coalition partners, urging them to “make every effort not to bring down the right-wing government” and to prevent the left from getting into power, the spokesman said.

A source close to Bennett said that after his meeting with Netanyahu “it became clear … there was a need to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government.”

Israeli media reported that other coalition partners would oppose Bennett becoming defense minister.

An election date would be decided on Sunday, the source close to Bennett said.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the Kulanu party, has also called for a vote to be held before the scheduled date next November.

Before the crisis Netanyahu’s coalition had 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament. The loss of Lieberman’s five has brought him down to a perilous 61. Losing Bennett’s eight means Netanyahu would lose his majority.

Opinion polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud would be likely to remain the dominant party after a parliamentary election.

Netanyahu, serving his fourth term as premier, is under investigation for corruption.

Commentators say he may agree to bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before the attorney general decides whether to indict him.

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