Coalition Crisis

Netanyahu threatens early elections if rival party leaves coalition over conscription bill

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Likud ministers that he will call early elections if rival party Yisrael Beytenu quits the coalition; Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett says he will vie for prime minister's seat; Netanyahu meets coalition heads in bid to resolve coalition crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a graduation ceremony of the National Security College on July 13, 2016. Photo by Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a graduation ceremony of the National Security College on July 13, 2016. Photo by Flash90.

If Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman pulls out of the coalition, there will be no choice but to hold early elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Likud ministers on Sunday.

The current crisis revolves around the religious parties’ demand for military exemption legislation, holding the state budget hostage to ensure the legislation’s passage. Lieberman, a longtime opponent of military draft exemptions for eligible religious men, threatened to bolt the coalition over the legislation. On Sunday, Netanyahu was expected to continue a round of meetings with coalition party leaders in an effort to avert a coalition crisis and a snap election.

Though the prime minister would still hold a small majority of 61 seats out of 120 parliament members, should Yisrael Beytenu bolt the coalition, “sixty-one is not an option,” said Netanyahu.

“We have major tasks ahead of us. For that to happen, all the [coalition] parties need to reach an agreement and decide that they are continuing together,” he told the ministers. “We are working to secure that because the citizens of Israel want a stable government that will complete its term.”

Earlier Sunday, the Likud accused Habayit Hayehudi party chairman Naftali Bennett of “working to undermine Netanyahu and taking care to arrange work for himself” after Bennett told the Ynet news site that in the event of early elections, Bennett would consider vying “head to head” with Netanyahu for the position of premier.

Speaking to the Ynet news site hours before Netanyahu was scheduled to resume the meetings he began Saturday night, Bennett said that if Netanyahu “forced” an early election on the public, he could find himself alone, having “lost the country.”

In a separate interview to Kan Bet radio, Bennett said that the coalition crisis was “entirely manufactured,” and that it “can be resolved.”

“Everything depends on Netanyahu,” said Bennett. “The public won’t forgive someone who calls an unnecessary election. This isn’t a Third World country, where there is an election every two years. … Holding an election for personal reasons is not OK. If we wind up there, we [Habayit Hayehudi] will have to reconsider our support for the prime minister.”

The Likud Party issued a response to Bennett stating, “While Prime Minister Netanyahu is busy resolving the crisis and stabilizing the right-wing government, Bennett is busy with his own personal election campaign.”

On Saturday, the religious party heads indicated that they would be willing to accept a compromise, but Lieberman made it clear he was unwilling to budge, even at the cost of propelling the country into an early election.

At the start of the weekend, it appeared that a proposed framework deal the coalition partners managed to put together this week would be fleshed out once Netanyahu returned from his weeklong visit to the United States. The deal calls for the religious factions to forgo their demand that their revised conscription bill be passed in the requisite three readings to become law before the 2019 state budget is finalized, and accept only a single reading of the bill.

The actual issue of drafting yeshivah students into the military will include the proposal that Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid submitted to the previous Knesset, minus the clause that would punish draft-dodgers. That clause will be changed to a provision that will revoke the law entirely if the haredi communities fail to meet their military enlistment quotas.

Lieberman, however, insists that he will support only the proposal being sketched out by the defense establishment, arguing that it is the only framework that will have the support of a Knesset majority.

On Saturday, Lieberman tweeted: “There are moments in life when you need to go with what you believe, and not with what is advisable or what will pay off. This is exactly that moment.”

Despite the increasingly belligerent tone of the debate, the religious parties appeared willing to compromise on Saturday. One of the two religious parties in the Knesset, Shas, has in effect already compromised and agreed that the conscription bill will not come up for a vote before the new state budget is passed. On Saturday, United Torah Judaism, joined Shas’s compromise after rabbis Gershon Edelstein and Chaim Kanievsky gave UTJ legislators a green light to go along with the proposal.

One religious Knesset member told Israel Hayom that “if it were up to us, we could reach a compromise. If he [Netanyahu] wants an election, we all know that we aren’t the reason for it,” referring to ongoing criminal investigations against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said prior to meeting with the religious party leaders on Saturday that he did not want an early election. The prime minister said that if the coalition partners were willing and committed to solving the issue, there was no reason to dissolve the Knesset and call an early election.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said last week that he would not vote in favor of the compromise conscription bill if Lieberman opposed it. Kahlon’s associates said they expected that the Likud would not want to support the compromise if Lieberman voted against it.

On Sunday, Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with Lieberman, Kahlon and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett. After the round of meetings is complete, the prime minister is expected to decide whether to move forward with the compromise or dissolve the Knesset.

Also on Sunday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation was due to debate the compromise bill on haredi conscription, despite the fact that it was submitted after the committee’s agenda was officially set. The proposed legislation is a private member’s bill authored by Shas MK Yoav Ben-Tzur. Some in the coalition expect that the bill could be subject to last-minute revisions as a result of the political crisis.

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