Bennett says he’s ready for elections, will demand defense portfolio

Jewish Home party leader also says he intends to run for PM once Netanyahu steps aside, but won’t push him out

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The head of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, said Thursday that he was prepared to go to early elections if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to dissolve the coalition, and would demand the position of defense minister in any future government led by Netanyahu.

“If Netanyahu decides that he wants elections, there will be elections,” Bennett, the education minister, told Army Radio. “If he wants a stable government, there’ll be a government.”

Bennett also repeated his intention to run for prime minister once Netanyahu — who is beset by a raft of corruption investigations and police recommendations he stand trial for bribery — steps down.

“I’m not going to push out Netanyahu, but if he’s prime minister I definitely intend to demand the defense portfolio next time,” he said. “I think that’s essential.”

Bennett’s comments came as election talk has grown over the past week, with the coalition at loggerheads over a military exemption bill. Speculation has also grown that Netanyahu could seek a snap vote to secure his mandate ahead of a possible indictment.

Though polls have shown Netanyahu cruising to another term, many analysts predict he could face a bruising campaign that would become a referendum on the graft suspicions against him.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 6, 2018. (Screen capture: AIPAC)

On Wednesday, the prime minister said he was not seeking early elections but that a fresh vote would be held if coalition parties can’t agree on legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service.

Laying out his conditions for avoiding elections, Netanyahu said any bill on ultra-Orthodox enlistment must be backed by the entire coalition and provide a long-term solution. But he also said he was demanding that coalition members agree to remain in the government until the end of its term.

“I want to bring a bill with as wide as possible agreement that will be acceptable to the attorney general and that will pass with a [larger] majority than usual, but also to get a commitment from all the [coalition] partners that we’ll continue together until the end of 2019,” he said on an airplane en route to New York from Washington, DC.

“I’m not interested in a solution that kicks the ball down the road and in another few weeks we’ll have another crisis,” he added, indicating that a deal on only the draft law may not be enough to keep his coalition afloat until November 2019, when elections are officially scheduled.

The draft legislation is backed by the United Torah Judaism party, which has threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if its bill isn’t passed. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened in response to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if the budget isn’t passed by next week, while Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has said it won’t budge in its opposition to the bill.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who leads the UTJ party, denied on Thursday reports of a compromise proposal to resolve the impasse.

“As of this moment, there is no proposal on the table that we can take to the rabbis for consideration, yes or no,” he told Army Radio, adding that he had not spoken to the prime minister or any other senior Likud figures since Wednesday.

MK Moshe Gafni, another senior UTJ party member, said Wednesday that he did not think the crisis had to bring the coalition to breaking point but that “someone” appeared to be preventing a solution that could be achieved “in 10 minutes.”

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni chairs a Knesset Finance Committee on March 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said Wednesday that he believed it was possible to resolve the coalition crisis, adding that Israelis “won’t forgive” the government if elections are held early.

“In light of my intensive talks with the coalition partners, I am convinced that the [military] draft bill crisis can be resolved. Furthermore, it can be resolved immediately,” he said.

“The public won’t forgive anyone who at this juncture leads the country into unnecessary elections and dismantles the most socially oriented right-wing government ever to serve in Israel,” Deri added.

Alexander Fulbright and Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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