As government crisis mounts, minister said to claim PM wants early elections

UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman blames Netanyahu for not making effort to solve coalition rift; source close to prime minister says only a long-term fix will stave off snap vote

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Talk about the possibility of calling early elections due to a government crisis intensified on Tuesday, with a key coalition partner claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interested in going to the polls soon, and Netanyahu conveying a message that, short of a long-term agreement to stabilize his coalition, the government would indeed collapse.

Sources close to the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party chairman Yaakov Litzman reportedly said the deputy health minister does not want elections, and blamed Netanyahu for leading the coalition to a breaking point.

“Litzman wants to reach an agreement, but nobody is doing anything to promote that,” said a source, quoted by multiple Hebrew-language news outlets. “If no solution to the military conscription law is found, there will be elections.”

UTJ has threatened to vote down the 2019 state budget unless legislation is approved exempting members of the ultra-Orthodox community from the military draft, at the order of the party’s rabbinical authority that is responsible for much of its decision-making, the Council of Torah Sages.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (FL) speaks to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (FR) at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit his post if the budget isn’t passed by next week, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has also insisted his party will not fold to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“There is no coordination with Netanyahu regarding elections. Litzman today estimated that the prime minister wants elections, seeing that he isn’t putting enough effort to end the crisis and Likud isn’t presenting a compromise plan,” the sources added. “Litzman does not want elections but will not hesitate to go to elections if an amended conscription law isn’t passed before the budget is approved, in accordance with orders from the Council of Torah Sages.”

“I estimate that Netanyahu is interested in elections,” Litzman himself was quoted on the Walla new site as saying in closed meetings. “Otherwise I can’t explain how he isn’t really intervening and his people, like [Tourism Minister and Netanyahu ally] Yariv Levin, aren’t presenting us with offers for a solution.”

Netanyahu is currently in the US for the policy conference of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, but last week tasked Levin with brokering a solution to the crisis.

Aside from the stalemate over the draft exemption legislation, there has also been mounting speculation that Netanyahu could seek to renew his mandate ahead of a possible indictment on corruption charges. The prime minister is under investigation in a number of cases on suspicions of bribery.

On Tuesday, senior government sources close to the prime minister said he isn’t interested in a short-term, partial fix, and could seek a snap vote if a long-term solution is not found.

“Netanyahu’s goal at the moment is a government that serves its term to the end,” a source told Hebrew news outlets. “There is no point in a government that will fall apart in May. Therefore, without an agreement that guarantees the government’s longevity, there is no choice but to go to elections.”

Elections are currently scheduled for November 2019, but could happen as early as June should the government collapse over the crisis.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman arrives at the weekly government conference at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, on October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The source said the prime minister sees only two options: “An agreement that guarantees that the government stays intact to the end or … declaring elections. There is no third option.”

“We are all waiting for the prime minister to return,” a Netanyahu associate said, according to the Walla news site. “In the meantime, Liberman won’t even commit to staying in the government if the [conscription] law passes and Kahlon isn’t willing to pass the law without Liberman. Litzman insists on passing the law in all three readings before approving the budget. In this situation we won’t be able to find any middle ground.”

Earlier Tuesday, UTJ lawmakers Moshe Gafni, Yaakov Asher, and Uri Maklev said they would meet the party’s rabbinical authorities to make a decision on a possible solution to the crisis. Their main question is reported to be whether to agree to only pass the law in preliminary reading before voting in favor of the state budget.

At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take, after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law.

The government has until September to re-legislate the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Haredi lawmakers pushing two parallel bills that would force the state to recognize long-term Torah study as a form of service, and the Defense Ministry hammering out its own version of the legislation.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this story.

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