Analysis: What will survive of U.S.-Middle East policy under Biden?

By Maayan Lubell and Rami Ayyub

TRUMP HEIGHTS, Occupied Golan Heights (Reuters) – Trump Heights, Trump Square, Trump train terminal: Israel isn’t shy about honoring Donald Trump, who is widely admired among Israelis for his staunch support of their country.

But in the Palestinian territories, no U.S. president was openly reviled as much as Trump, or depicted in such unflattering terms in portraits and effigies across the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

In four years, Trump overturned decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Joe Biden will want to undo many of those changes during his presidency, but his freedom for maneuver will be limited.

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, signaled that countering Iran would be central to Biden’s Middle East agenda.

But Blinken said the United States was “a long way” from rejoining the 2015 pact with Iran – restraining Tehran’s nuclear program – which the United States quit under Trump.

Biden and his team have said they will restore ties with the Palestinians that were cut by Trump, resume aid and reject unilateral actions, such as construction of Israeli settlements on occupied territory.

But Blinken said the U.S. embassy in Israel would remain in Jerusalem, which Trump recognized as Israel’s capital.

Four Trump-brokered diplomatic deals between Israel and Arab states are also likely to remain – they have bipartisan support in Washington and brought a strategic realignment of Middle East countries against Iran.

So too is Trump’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

Biden’s challenge will be how to walk back not just Trump-era policy – and the polarization triggered by the man who said he had “done a lot for Israel” – without being accused of retreating altogether from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“He will try to project an image of fairness and balance,” Michele Dunne, Director of the Middle East Program at the U.S. based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters.

“There is no question that Biden’s policies towards the Middle East will be quite different from those of Trump; the question is how different they will be from those of (former President Barack) Obama… I doubt that Biden sees the conflict as ripe for U.S. diplomacy right now.”

TRUMP AND NETANYAHU

Trump was broadly in lockstep on Middle East policy with his closest ally in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As well as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Trump backed Israeli settlements in the West Bank, territory that the Palestinians seek for a state.

Israel’s investment in its West Bank settlements between 2017-2019 increased by almost half against the last three years in office of Obama, according to official Israeli data provided to the U.S. State Department and seen by Reuters.

One day before Biden’s inauguration, Israel issued tenders for more than 2,500 settlement homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, on top of hundreds more announced by Netanyahu last week.

Relations with the Palestinians reached a new low after Trump cut off $360 million annual funding to UNRWA, the United Nations agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, reduced other aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington D.C.

Blinken returned to long-standing, pre-Trump, diplomatic norms at his senate hearing.

“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said.

But he added: “Realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”

In Gaza, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini was optimistic of change, and that things might ease up for the Palestinian refugees that his agency cares for.

“We indeed have informal contact with the incoming new administration. We heard all the messages we are receiving that there are intentions to resume the partnership,” he told Reuters.

THE TRUMP BRAND

For many Israelis, the Trump brand has not been tarnished by the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6.

In Trump Heights, a tiny Golan Heights settlement, work is underway to house 20 new families who will move in by the summer. A giant black and gold sign at the gate has been restored after vandals stole the ‘T’.

“We are keeping the name Trump Heights, we are proud of the name. President Trump deserves gratitude for all the good deeds he did for us,” Golan Regional Council Head Haim Rokach told Reuters.

An Israeli cabinet minister this week reaffirmed his support for Trump’s name to adorn a future train terminus near Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and at Trump Square roundabout in Petah Tikva he remains popular. “We will miss him,” said Alon Sender. “He was good for Israel.”

(Additional reporting by Rami Amichay, Adel Abu Nimeh, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ali Sawafta, Writing by Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Kushner to lead U.S. delegation to Israel, Morocco

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will lead a U.S. delegation to Israel and Morocco next week for discussions on the normalization deal the two Middle East countries reached last week, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation and an Israeli team will join together and take the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat as a sign of progress after the Israel-Morocco deal that Kushner helped broker, the official told Reuters.

Kushner, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will leave for Israel on Monday.

While in Jerusalem, Kushner, who is U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official.

El Al is expected to be the airliner for the first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat that the Kushner team and a delegation led by Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will take, the official said.

The Israel-Morocco deal was the fourth that the United States helped broker, following similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Kushner and his team are still holding talks with other countries from the Arab and Muslim world.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)

Ahead of U.S. poll, Trump ends a U.S. restriction applying to Israeli settlements

ARIEL, West Bank (Reuters) – The Trump administration lifted a decades-old ban on Wednesday that had prohibited U.S. taxpayer funding for Israeli scientific research conducted in Jewish settlements in occupied territory, drawing Palestinian condemnation.

With Tuesday’s U.S. election approaching, President Donald Trump’s move was praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and could resonate with evangelical Christian voters who support Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The West Bank settlement of Ariel, the site of an Israeli university, was chosen as the venue for a ceremony opening a new avenue of U.S. scientific cooperation with Israeli researchers.

Palestinians, who seek the West Bank for a future state, said the move made Washington complicit in what they termed Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.

In Ariel, Netanyahu and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, revised three agreements reached between 1972 and 1977, enabling researchers in settlements to apply for U.S. government funds. They also signed a new scientific and technology cooperation accord.

Under the now-lifted prohibition, research money for Israelis could not be distributed in areas such as the West Bank that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries view permanent settlements on such land as a violation of the Geneva Conventions, though Israel disputes this.

“The Trump vision … opens Judea and Samaria to academic, commercial and scientific engagement with the United States,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony in Ariel, using biblical names for West Bank territory.

“This is an important victory against all those who seek to delegitimize everything Israeli beyond the 1967 lines.”

Friedman said $1.4 billion had been invested by three U.S.-Israeli research cooperation funds since 1972.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said lifting of the funding ban represented “American participation in the occupation of Palestinian lands.”

The Trump administration last year effectively backed Israel’s right to build West Bank settlements by abandoning a long-held U.S. position that they were “inconsistent with international law”.

At the ceremony, Netanyahu again praised Trump for his “successful approach to bringing peace to our region”, citing U.S.-brokered deals for diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israeli campaigners want Jewish ruins included in West Bank annexations

By Rinat Harash

NEAR JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) – The Israeli government faces calls from campaigners to declare sovereignty over ancient Jewish ruins on land in the occupied West Bank that Israel does not plan to annex under U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace blueprint.

The annexation plan, which the government is due to start discussing as of Wednesday, envisages Israel annexing Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley – some 30% of the West Bank. Under Trump’s plan, a Palestinian state would be created in the rest of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since a 1967 war.

An Israeli advocacy group called “Safeguarding Eternity” is worried about what will happen to Jewish archaeological sites on parts of the West Bank not included in Trump’s annexation map.

It wants Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to guarantee Israeli control over sites such as the remnants of hilltop Hasmonean and Herodian forts dating back two millennia, and hundreds of ruins from earlier Jewish rule.

“This entire plan – its right, its essence – is the connection of the Jewish people to their land and our heritage,” Eitan Melet, a director of Safeguarding Eternity, said as he stood among a jumble of limestones that were the foundation of the desert fortress of Cypros, overlooking the Palestinian city of Jericho.

“If we don’t take our heritage sites into account, this plan has no right to exist at all.”

The Israeli government has not commented on the campaigners’ demands. The Palestinians reject Trump’s blueprint and Israel’s plan to annex territory they seek for a future state.

PALESTINIAN MINISTRY: SITES ARE PROTECTED

Assaf Avraham, an archaeologist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said he too was worried about the fate of archaeological sites in the West Bank.

“If these areas are not in the hands or under the sovereignty of (authorities) that know how to take care of and maintain archaeological sites, and which have the motivation to do so, we really fear for these places,” he said.

The Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry dismissed such concerns.

It said in a statement that it is “able to protect and preserve the cultural heritage sites under Palestinian control, as maintenance and restoration work is carried out continuously”.

The Palestinians say Trump’s plan is biased, and most world powers view Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as illegal.

Interim 1993 peace accords granted the Palestinians limited self-rule in West Bank areas, where they agreed to secure Jewish heritage sites for Israeli visits.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu formally indicted in court on corruption charges

By Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on Tuesday on corruption charges after he withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahyu was in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Trump’s long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan when Israel’s attorney-general filed the charges in a Jerusalem court.

The immunity bid seemed doomed to fail from the beginning since Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, lacked sufficient votes in the legislature for approval.

The request for protection from prosecution had effectively blocked the filing of the indictment until now.

As proceedings move toward trial the timeline remains unclear and it could take months or years.

In addition to his legal battle, Netanyahu is fighting for his political life in a March 2 election, Israel’s third in less than a year after inconclusive ballots in April and September.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, said in a statement that an immunity debate in parliament would have been a “circus” and he did not want to take part in this “dirty game”.

With public attention in Israel focused on events in Washington, Netanyahu’s White House meetings seemed likely to overshadow his latest legal woes.

The veteran right-winger is under no legal obligation to resign.

Netanyahu’s main rival, centrist former general Benny Gantz, made Netanyahu’s legal troubles a centerpiece of his campaigns in two Israeli elections last year.

Gantz made a brief trip to Washington to discuss the peace plan with Trump, and had rushed back to Israel expecting to lead the parliament debate against granting Netanyahu immunity.

“Netanyahu is going to trial – we have to move on,” Gantz said after Netanyahu pulled his immunity request.

“The citizens of Israel have a clear choice: a prime minister who works for them or a prime minister busy with himself. No one can manage the country and in parallel manage three serious criminal cases,” Gantz said in a tweet.

The corruption charges marked the first criminal indictment against a serving Israeli prime minister. The charge sheet was first published by Israel’s attorney general in November following a long-running investigation. The charges included bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing regulatory favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by a popular news website.Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch. Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israeli parties agree on March 2 election if no government formed

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s two biggest parties agreed on Monday on a March 2 election date, barring a last-minute power-sharing deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for political survival under criminal indictment.

A 21-day period in which parliament can nominate a legislator with majority support to try to put together a ruling coalition expires at 2200 GMT on Wednesday, triggering the legislature’s dissolution and an election within 90 days.

It would be Israel’s third national ballot in less than a year. Recent opinion polls have predicted no dramatic shifts among voters since inconclusive elections in April and September.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in parliament for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed, throwing the ball into parliament’s court. Their parties have been deadlocked in talks on a “unity” administration in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister.

The two parties, which disagree over which man would serve first and for how long, announced they had agreed on the March 2 election date. The date needs parliament’s approval but the two parties dominate the assembly so it is sure to pass.

The political disarray and a long-running corruption investigation have threatened to curtail Netanyahu’s decade-long hold on power. Last month, Netanyahu, 70, was charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Denying any wrongdoing, he has accused Israel’s legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign following the indictment. A caretaker premier remains in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if coalition-building is taken into account.

Before the national poll, Netanyahu would face an internal Likud leadership election. No date has been announced and only one challenger has emerged, former cabinet minister Gideon Saar, with no signs of any broad party revolt to oust Netanyahu.

In a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said he hoped to avoid another election, “but if one is forced upon us, we will win big.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Prosecution in Israel lines up over 300 witnesses in Netanyahu case

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An indictment submitted to Israel’s parliament on Monday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu names more than 300 prosecution witnesses, including wealthy friends and former aides, in three graft cases against him.

By formally sending the indictment to the legislature, after announcing charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud on Nov. 21, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit set the clock ticking on a 30-day period in which Netanyahu can seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Such protection seems unlikely, with Israeli politics in disarray after inconclusive elections in April and September and the failure of Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, to secure a ruling majority in the legislature.

Netanyahu, in office for the past decade, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of an attempted “coup” waged by legal authorities trying to unseat a popular right-wing leader.

As prime minister, he is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. No date has been set for the opening of the trial, with three judges presiding in Jerusalem District Court.

The indictment submitted to parliament listed 333 witnesses for the prosecution. Legal experts said the long roster meant proceedings could go on for years.

They include U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, Australian billionaire James Packer and retired Israeli security chiefs, and several former aides who will be state witnesses against him.

Netanyahu poured scorn on the length of the witness list.

“When an accusation is true, you don’t need 333 witnesses,” he wrote on Twitter. “When the accusation is untrue, not even 333 witnesses will help.”

TALKS DEADLOCKED

In one case, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully requesting and accepting expensive gifts, including champagne and cigars, from Milchan and Packer. Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Another case focuses on allegations that Netanyahu promised the owner of Israel’s best-selling newspaper to push for regulations on its main competitor, owned by Adelson.

Netanyahu also is accused of granting regulatory favors worth about 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel <BEZQ.TA> in return for positive coverage on a website owned by its former chairman.

Talks between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party on a “national unity” government are deadlocked.

If no agreement is reached within 10 days – the end of a three-week period in which legislators can nominate a candidate to try to form a government – Israel is likely to hold a new election.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Trump says he made Golan Heights decision after a quick history lesson

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he made the controversial decision to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights after getting a quick history lesson during a conversation on a different subject.

Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas, Trump said he made the snap decision during a discussion with his top Middle East peace advisers, including the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“I said, ‘Fellows, do me a favor. Give me a little history, quick. Want to go fast. I got a lot of things I’m working on: China, North Korea. Give me a quickie,” Trump said to laughter from the Las Vegas crowd.

“‘How do you like the idea of me recognizing exactly what we’re discussing?'” said Trump, recounting the conversation.

Trump, who typically demands short sharp briefings and is known for his colorful retelling of stories, said Friedman was shocked, “like a wonderful, beautiful baby,” and asked the President if he would actually do it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Trump last month. At their March 25 meeting, Trump signed a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory, a dramatic departure from decades of U.S. policy. The move, which Trump announced in a tweet days prior, was widely seen as an attempt to boost Netanyahu who is up for re-election on April 9.

Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

“I went – ‘BING!’ – it was done,” Trump said on Saturday, describing the swiftness of his decision. “We make fast decisions. And we make good decisions.”

When Trump asked the crowd who will win Israel’s election – there were shouts of “Bibi!” Trump responded “I think it’s going to be close. Two good people.”

Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival against former top general Benny Gantz, a political novice.

Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who is reportedly gravely ill, watched the speech in person.

Earlier three protesters stood on their chairs as Trump began to speak, shouting “Jews are here to say – occupation is a plague.” The rest of the crowd quickly drowned them out with chants of “USA! USA!” They were physically removed by security guards.

“He is going back to mommy and he will be reprimanded,” Trump said of the protesters. “She gets it.”

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, writing by Lucia Mutikani; additional reporting by David Shepardson and David Brunnstrom; editing by Michelle Price and David Gregorio)

Israel-Hamas fighting abates along Gaza border after major escalation

Palestinians inspect a destroyed Hamas site after it was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas abated on Tuesday after a day of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, but Israel said it reserved the right to strike again and kept its forces massed at the Gaza frontier.

The biggest Israeli-Palestinian escalation in months, which began on Monday with the longest-range Palestinian rocket attack to cause casualties in Israel for five years, appeared to have been curbed overnight by Egyptian mediation.

But even if brought to an end, the crisis could have an impact on an Israeli election in two weeks in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, arguing that he must stay in power to keep Israelis safe.

Israel responded to Monday’s rocket attack with a wave of strikes on targets belonging to the Hamas militant group that controls the Gaza strip. Seven Israelis were injured in the initial rocket attack and five Palestinians were wounded by the retaliatory Israeli strikes, although most of the targets hit appeared to have been evacuated in advance.

A senior Israeli official on board the plane of Netanyahu — who flew home cutting short a visit to the United States to deal with the crisis — said Israel had not yet stood down.

“We are prepared to deliver another blow, if necessary,” Israeli Army Radio quoted the official as saying.

The border area fell quiet on Tuesday morning after Hamas said Egypt had brokered a truce. As in past escalations that ended with Egyptian mediation, Israel denied it had agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas, which it views as a terrorist group.

Rocket warning sirens, which had sounded in Israeli towns near the border on Monday night, fell silent by morning.

The escalation was the biggest since November between Israel and Hamas, which fought three wars between 2007 and 2014 and have come to the brink of all-out conflict several times since.

Security is a major issue as Netanyahu, in power for a decade, faces his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a top general. The right-wing leader is beset by corruption allegations which he denies. He argues that he has kept Israelis safe with a tough stance towards the Palestinians that could be weakened if he leaves office.

In Washington, he met U.S. President Donald Trump, who reversed decades of U.S. policy to sign a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

Reporters who flew with Netanyahu quoted the senior Israeli official as saying Trump’s move was proof that Israel could retain land captured in a “defensive war”, an apparent suggestion of a permanent hold over other areas captured in 1967, such as parts of the West Bank.

“WE DON’T WANT WAR”

The Israeli military blamed Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, for Monday’s initial strike that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv. It said the rocket had been launched from the enclave, some 120 km (70 miles) away.

Retaliatory Israeli air strikes in Gaza lit up the night sky and explosions rocked the densely-populated coastal enclave, destroying targets that included the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The military said extra Israeli soldiers and tanks had been moved to the border.

In the morning, with the bombing having stopped, Gazans picked through the rubble of destroyed buildings to search for valuables and documents. Some Gaza universities were shut but schools were open, although many families kept children home.

“We don&rsquo;t want war, but if Israel wants it then what should we do? We ask our factions to respond,” said Mohammad Sayed, 40. “But we hope Egypt reaches a deal to end this.”

Gaza militants fired barrages of rockets into Israel late into Monday night. Some were shot down by Israeli defenses and others landed in empty areas. Israel remained on high alert on Tuesday and ordered schools near the border closed and residents to stay near bomb shelters.

“I told my kids that everything is going to be all right and that it will be over. We trust the government will solve the problem,” Eliav Vanunu, whose house in the Israeli border town of Sderot was damaged by a rocket on Monday night, said on Israel Radio.

Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians, mostly descendants of people who fled or were driven from homes in Israel on its founding in 1948.

Israel captured the territory in the 1967 war but pulled out its troops in 2005. Hamas took control two years later, and since then Israel and Egypt have maintained a security blockade that has brought Gaza’s economy to a state of collapse.

In the past year, nearly 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed during demonstrations near the border by Palestinians seeking a lifting of the blockade and the right to return to homes in Israel. Israel says it has no choice but to use deadly force to protect the frontier from militants.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ran Tzabari and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel’s Netanyahu takes over defense job as coalition falters

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a session of the plenum of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – 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, fuelling 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 at a ceasefire reached between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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 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, who leads an ultra-nationalist, religious party, becoming defense 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 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, 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.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Roche)