Israel appeared to be hurtling towards early elections on Wednesday after the defence minister resigned and accused Benjamin Netanyahu of “surrendering to terror” by agreeing to a ceasefire with Hamas.
The resignation of Avigdor Lieberman, a hawkish member of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, leaves the government with just a one-seat majority that could collapse if other parties also decide to quit.
Mr Netanyahu’s allies said he planned to take over the defence ministry himself, meaning he would simultaneously serve as Israel’s prime minister, defence minister, foreign minister and health minister.
But Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Right-wing Jewish Home party, demanded the defence portfolio for himself and threatened to bring down the government if he was not given the post.
The day of political drama began when Mr Lieberman resigned on Wednesday afternoon over Mr Netanyahu’s decision decision to accept a ceasefire with Hamas to end 24 hours of intense fighting.
Mr Lieberman said the Israeli government should confront the Islamist militant group more forcefully even if it meant suffering more rocket fire into Israeli cities.
"What happened yesterday – the truce combined with the process with Hamas – is surrendering to terror,” he said. "What we’re doing now as a state is buying short-term quiet, with the price being severe long-term damage to national security.”
Mr Lieberman withdrew his five Yisrael Beiteinu MPs from Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, meaning the government now has only 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. He also called for early elections.
Mr Netanyahu had been bracing for attacks from the Right since agreeing to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire deal on Tuesday, ending the fighting which left one person dead in Israel and seven dead in Gaza.
Residents of the southern city of Sderot, a regular target for Hamas’ rockets, burned tires and blocked the streets in protest at the ceasefire, saying Israel was being held hostage by Hamas.
Speaking before the defence minister’s resignation, Mr Netanyahu defended the agreement and said the public could not understand all the reasons for his decision.
“I hear the voices of the residents of the south. Believe me, they are precious to me, their words penetrate my heart. But together with the heads of the security forces, I see the overall picture of Israel’s security, which I cannot share with the public,” he said.
Mr Netanyahu offered no public reaction to the resignation but allies in his Likud party said he planned to take over the defence minister job and keep the coalition government standing for at least several months.
However, within hours that plan was looking shaky.
Mr Bennett, who is the education minister as well the leader of Jewish Home, presented the prime minister with an ultimatum: hand over the defence ministry or see the government collapse.
It was not clear Wednesday night which option Mr Netanyahu would choose or whether he would try to call his junior coalition partner’s bluff.
Elections must happen by November 2019 but most Israeli politicians expected Mr Netanyahu would call them in the spring.
Opinion polls have shown that Mr Netanyahu’s Likud would win an election, despite the ongoing corruption scandal swirling around the prime minister and his wife.
However, Mr Netanyahu will be reluctant to go straight into a campaign after the ceasefire deal, which was unpopular with his own Right-wing base.
Hamas immediately hailed Mr Lieberman’s resignation as victory for its fighters. “This is a political victory for Gaza, which caused this political earthquake within the occupation,” the group said.
Mr Lieberman heads Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular Right-wing party which draws its support mainly from Israel’s Russian population.
He has a history of extreme statements – like calling for the assassination of Hamas’ leader and the beheading of disloyal Arab citizens of Israel – but was more restrained when he became defence minister in May 2016
His small party has hovered just above the threshold of votes to win seats in parliament and he may have calculated that his high-profile resignation over security issues would give him momentum among Right-wing voters going into an election.