(November 15, 2018 / Israel Hayom) Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s decision to resign on Wednesday has rattled the political system, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking at ways to preserve the coalition’s stability.
Lieberman announced Wednesday that he was resigning his position as defense minister and taking his party, Yisrael Beytenu, out of the coalition. The dramatic announcement followed weeks of what has been described as “prolonged disagreements” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s policy in the Gaza Strip and how best to handle Hamas’s provocations.
Lieberman has also repeatedly locked horns with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett over the issue.
The last straw was apparently Netanyahu’s decision to agree to the latest Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas, which followed two days of the fiercest fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and the terrorist group since 2014.
Habayit Hayehudi presented an ultimatum just hours after Lieberman made his decision, saying it would support early elections unless Bennett gets the defense portfolio.
Likud and Habayit Hayehudi held intense talks on Wednesday with the aim of resolving the crisis. Likud sources said that the party has not ruled out Bennett’s request, and a senior minister said, “We [the Likud] are willing to discuss everything.” The minister added that the talks will be held on condition that “Habayit Hayehudi does not dictate demands.”
The minister, a close associate of Netanyahu, confirmed that the heads of the coalition factions are engaged in talks over how to avoid early elections or, at the very least, avert dissolving the Knesset until the end of the winter session in April.
“We will see how we move forward. No party wants Lieberman to dictate the date of the next election. The coalition can survive even if it has only 61 MKs [a narrow Knesset majority],” the minister said.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) reacted to Lieberman’s resignation publicly, saying, “We are duty-bound to ensure the right-wing government remains stable and stays in power. This is why the defense minister’s resignation is wrong.”
He stressed that “the government will survive, so long as the factions join forces. And, of course, we are not going to allow this situation to result in extortion and irresponsible behavior.”
Habayit Hayehudi said that Netanyahu must choose between settling on an agreed date for early elections with the faction leaders or heeding Bennett’s request.
“Bennett has entered politics because he wanted this [portfolio], and now the ball is in Netanyahu’s court,” said a senior Habayit Hayehudi official.
Mixed signals over the push for early elections
Sources in the party stressed that Bennett does not want a clash with Netanyahu and prefers to work together.
In a statement, Habayit Hayehudi said, “Israel must adopt a new position on national security. It must restore its deterrence and be proactive once again.”
The party further warned that “a government that does not generate deterrence cannot call itself a right-wing government. Without stepping up to the plate and taking care of the national mission of addressing state security together with the prime minister, there is no point in this government staying in power.”
A senior Likud official said that “calling early elections during such a sensitive period, security-wise, is not imperative, and the government can serve out its term.”
Despite Likud pushing for stability, other parties seem to have warmed up to the idea of early elections, including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s centrist party Kulanu.
“We want elections, and we are not going to go out of our way to iron out the differences to make this government survive, but neither are we going to take it down,” a senior Kulanu official said on Wednesday.
Kulanu has recently seen its polling numbers pick up, and that is why it would stand to gain from snap elections.
According to Kahlon’s associates, he is worried that the date in which the current elections are scheduled for, November 2019, could pose a risk. Kahlon fears that he could be punished by voters if in the next 12 months he becomes embroiled in budgetary wars and withholds spending on various programs, and hence prefers moving up the elections, they said.
The ultra-Orthodox parties sent mixed signals as to the prospect of early elections.
The Ashkenazi haredi party United Torah Judaism, which is currently preoccupied with its own infighting, is said to be leaning toward supporting Netanyahu’s stance of averting early elections, in part because of its desire to see the new conscription bill passed.
Sources in the Sephardi Shas Party said it felt ready for elections, in part because of its successful showing in the recent municipal elections across Israel. However, they said that the party is currently keen on working together with other parties in the coalition in an effort to avoid the dissolution of the Knesset.