Bennett about-face buoys PM, but Kahlon says coalition still doomed

Netanyahu tells cheering party that coalition will last another year; Kulanu chair maintains Israel will still go to elections in March

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Benjamin Netanyahu leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Hours after Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett announced he would remain in the government and not force early elections, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said on Monday that he does not believe the coalition will remain intact for much longer and predicted new national polls would be held within four months.

“It’s hard to believe the deal will hold,” Kahlon told his Kulanu faction in a closed-door Knesset meeting, according to party sources.

Kahlon had earlier said governing with a razor-thin majority would be impossible, but has declined to topple the government himself.

“Prepare for elections in March,” he said.

In a dramatic announcement Monday morning, Education Minister Naftali Bennett reneged on a promise to pull his Jewish Home party out of the government and force new elections if he was not made defense minister, keeping the coalition alive with a razor-thin majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Speaking shortly after Kahlon, but before his comments were made public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his own Likud party that he believed he had secured another full year for the government.

“In recent days I have spoken with all the heads of the coalition. I told them that, at this time, we cannot bring down the government. I am pleased the efforts bore fruit,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the Likud faction meeting. “We have another year until elections. Another year with a lot to do.”

In a brief but emphatic speech to lawmakers and cheering party activists, the prime minister said that he would not be going anywhere soon.

“I don’t need others to protect me. I protect. I protect this country, I protect the security, I protect our children,” Netanyahu said. “There has never been a prime minister who has faced so many pressures and has stood up to them. Others would have run away. It won’t happen with me.”

Despite heaping withering criticism on the government’s defense policies, Bennett said on Monday morning that he will back Netanyahu — who has now also taken on the position of defense minister — in an effort to improve Israel’s “deep security crisis.”

Speaking at a press conference at the Knesset, Bennett said he had decided to “stand by the prime minister’s side,” and not act on his ultimatum to leave the government.

The announcement came after Netanyahu urged his partners on Sunday night to stay the course in the current government, because Israel is in “one of our most complex periods in terms of security.”

Bennett said that “if the prime minister is true to his words, and I want to believe that he will be, then we will stand by his side.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver a statement to reporters on November 19, 2018, flanked by other members of their Jewish Home party. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Kulanu party’s Knesset faction chair, MK Roy Folkman, however, said elections were likely regardless of Bennett’s announcement.

“The coalition hasn’t been functioning properly for several weeks. We will go to elections even if Bennett and Ayelet Shaked don’t resign,” he told Army Radio Monday morning.

Kahlon on Saturday night said that governing effectively will be “impossible” with just 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, as the coalition will be too unstable.

The political crisis began Wednesday with the resignation of Liberman over his criticism of the government’s handling of the violence emanating from Gaza. The withdrawal of Liberman’s five-seat Yisrael Beytenu faction reduced the governing coalition to the slimmest 61-seat majority.

Immediately after the resignation, Bennett demanded the defense portfolio in Liberman’s stead, warning that without it he would withdraw his own eight-seat faction and ensure the toppling of the coalition and new elections.

On Sunday night, Netanyahu delivered a stinging critique of both party leaders. “We are in the middle of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon a campaign to play politics,” Netanyahu said. “The security of the country is above politics and personal considerations.”

Bennett admitted on Monday that his about-face would likely “cost a political price for me,” but, he added, “it doesn’t matter, it’s better for us to help the prime minister lead us to victory.”

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