Netanyahu (R) with Bennett in 2016. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

In a surprising move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed Naftali Bennett, leader of a small conservative party, as defense minister.

Why it matters: This move is purely political. Netanyahu was worried Bennett would agree to join a coalition led by Benny Gantz, giving Gantz the majority he'd need to displace Netanyahu and form a government. Gantz has another 10 days to form a government before he loses his mandate.

Bennett’s appointment is surprising because for the last five years he has been one of Netanyahu’s main political rivals and a sharp critic on national security issues, including the situation in Gaza.

  • Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff a decade ago when he was opposition leader, but relations broke down and Bennett began to be treated by Netanyahu as a political arch-enemy.
  • Bennett is a right-wing hardliner, but his appointment will not dramatically change Israeli security policy vis a vis Gaza, Syria, Lebanon or Iran.
  • Bennett will be an interim minister in a transition government that, according to the law, is very limited in its ability to take dramatic decisions.

The bottom line: Netanyahu’s move will make Gantz’s mission to form a government even harder. Gantz’s only possibility now is to try and form a minority government with the support of the Arab Joint List — something he is very reluctant to do.

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