Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take over the defence portfolio, a spokesman for his Likud Party says, sparking speculation of an early election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, during the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. (FILE)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, during the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. (FILE) (AFP Archive)

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

Earlier Netanyahu met with key coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home 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 of a ceasefire reached between Israel and Gaza.

Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beitenu party has quit the coalition and its five MPs have withdrawn support for the government.

After Bennett and Netanyahu's meeting, a spokesman for the PM's Likud Party said that for now Netanyahu would handle the defence portfolio himself.

TRT World's Ali Mustafa speaks with Seth Frantzman of The Jerusalem Post for more insights.

'Elections as soon as possible'

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, who leads an ultra-nationalist, religious party, becoming defence minister.

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

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

Before the crisis Netanyahu's coaltion 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, a conservative 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. 

Gaza ceasefire

The Gaza ceasefire, which ended the worst flare-up between Israel and Gaza since a 2014 war, faced its first major test on Friday, the day of the week when Palestinian protests near the Gaza-Israel fence have typically peaked. 

Thousands of demonstrators turned out at Gaza's fence with Israel, an AFP reporter said.

Gaza's health ministry said that 14 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli army fire, two of them seriously. 

The ceasefire announced on Tuesday has drawn heavy criticism in Israeli communities near the fence that faced rockets from Gaza earlier this week in retaliation to Israeli botched raid. 

Hundreds of people joined a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Thursday despite a promise from Netanyahu of more public money for emergency services.

They called for tougher action against Gaza.

'Speeding train'

Pro-Netanyahu freesheet Yisrael Hayom daily predicted that the prime minister would do all he could to avoid a general election while his hard-won security credentials were at issue.

"Holding elections with the fiasco in Gaza in the background cracks the image of the ultimate leader that he has built over the course of years," it said. 

"The chances of stopping this speeding train appear impossible, but Netanyahu is still trying." 

The eight lawmakers of Bennett's far-right Jewish Home party are not the only threat to Netanyahu's razor-thin parliamentary majority.

Kahlon, whose centre-right Kulanu party holds 10 seats, has reportedly told Netanyahu that a snap election is necessary.

But Yisrael Hayom said Bennett was key to efforts to avoid an early election and could yet prove Netanyahu's political salvation.

"Naftali Bennett as defence minister and Netanyahu as prime minister could together project stability and embark on a coordinated offensive against anyone who gets in the way," it said.

In a speech on Thursday, Bennett did not reiterate the resignation threat but made his case for why he should get the defence post.

"The most dangerous thing for the state of Israel is that we begin to think that there is no solution to terrorism, to terrorists, to missiles," he said.

"There is a solution. When Israel wants to win, we will win."

Graft troubles

Netanyahu – flanked by Kahlon, Interior Minister Arie Deri and army top brass – met with the leaders of Israeli border communities Thursday and discussed a $139 million two-year package to improve emergency medical and social services, a government statement said.

With a major domestic political battle on his hands, Netanyahu cancelled a planned two-day visit to Austria next week for a conference on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

There has long been speculation that Netanyahu would call a general election before its scheduled date of November 2019.

Police have recommended he be charged in two separate corruption cases and the attorney general is expected to announce in the coming months whether to put him on trial.

Analysts say the prime minister would be better positioned to fight any charges with a fresh mandate from the voters.

But he would not have chosen to go the polls with voters' attention focused on the Gaza ceasefire and his rivals' efforts to outbid his security credentials.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies