U.S. Markets close in 1 hr 24 mins

Israel's Netanyahu appoints far-right Bennett as defense minister

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed the head of a far-right political party as defense minister of his caretaker government, a spokesman for the premier's right-wing Likud party said on Friday.

Naftali Bennett, who heads the New Right party, will take the defense portfolio from Netanyahu, who has simultaneously served as premier and defense minister for nearly a year.

"The appointment will be brought to the government for approval at an upcoming government meeting," the Likud spokesman said in a statement.

Israeli politics is deadlocked after two inconclusive elections this year. Former military chief Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White party emerged neck and neck with Netanyahu following a September vote, and both leaders have struggled to put together a ruling coalition.

Gantz, who was asked by Israel's president to forge a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so, has less than two weeks left to form a government.

If he fails, the country could be headed toward an unprecedented third election although a smaller party might be given a chance before that.

Netanyahu has led a caretaker government throughout the political turmoil.

Bennett's appointment appeared to be an attempt by Netanyahu to stymie Gantz's coalition negotiations, which include discussions with right-wing parties.

"Appointing a 'temporary placeholder' to the position of Defense Minister is unworthy of the most sensitive establishment in the state," Blue and White said in a statement.

Bennett previously served in Netanyahu's cabinet as education minister. A former settler leader, he advocates tough action against Palestinian militants in Gaza and unusual tactics toward Israel's arch-foe Iran and its proxy Hezbollah.

Netanyahu took over the defense portfolio following the resignation of then-chief Avigdor Lieberman, who in stepping down in November 2018 helped plunge the country toward snap elections in April.

Netanyahu and Bennett also agreed to form a parliamentary alliance, the Likud spokesman said, adding that Bennett agreed another person would be appointed defense chief if a unity government or narrow right-wing coalition is formed.


(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; editing by Philippa Fletcher)