Coalition deal said in the works to avoid early elections
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Coalition deal said in the works to avoid early elections

Netanyahu reportedly gets 'cold feet'; agreement may see enlistment bill approved while allowing Yisrael Beytenu members to object without PM firing rogue minister

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was said on Tuesday to have reached a possible arrangement to solve a coalition crisis involving a bill exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service and the 2019 state budget, possibly staving off early elections at the last minute.

Senior sources in the coalition were quoted by multiple news outlets as saying Netanyahu had decided not to dismantle the government, having gotten “cold feet.”

“We have taken a major step away from elections … we believe we can avoid early elections,” a senior source in the prime minister’s circle was quoted telling Army Radio.

The news came as speculation mounted that the Knesset would vote to dissolve on Tuesday afternoon, amid a spiraling crisis over the conscription law being pushed by the ultra-Orthodox parties, which is opposed by Yisrael Beytenu. The ultra-Orthodox have threatened to torpedo the 2019 state budget if the conscription bill does not pass on preliminary reading this week, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit if the budget is not passed.

Some have also accused Netanyahu of seeking early elections as a way of clinching another mandate before a possible bribery indictment.

According to the Hadashot TV news outlet, an agreement includes voting down an opposition-led motion to dissolve the Knesset and schedule fresh elections, passing the conscription law in preliminary reading while allowing the Yisrael Beytenu party to vote against it. Netanyahu would refrain from firing Yisrael Beytenu Minister Sofa Landver, who on Monday appealed the approval of the law by a ministerial committee.

According to precedent, a sitting minister can’t vote against a government ministerial decision. However, according to the reportedly emerging deal, ministers will request that the prime minister not fire her and guarantee it was a one-time incident.

The Walla news site reported the ultra-Orthodox conscription legislation would then be coordinated with the Defense Ministry, led by Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, and with IDF officials.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (R) pose for a picture with lone soldiers at an event in Tel Aviv on January 25, 2018. (Flash90)

Maariv reported that the ultra-Orthodox parties were considering the option of not voting on the conscription law in the Knesset plenum at all before approving the 2019 budget, since that step isn’t required for a government law bill.

The decision on whether Israel will go to early elections was widely perceived Tuesday afternoon to rest with Netanyahu, after Liberman appeared ready to soften his position.

Earlier, Netanyahu postponed by an hour a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, in which ministers will hear an appeal by Landver against a decision allowing the Knesset to vote on the bill. The step came after Liberman on Monday had threatened to quit the coalition and thus usher in new elections if Landver is fired from her ministerial post for opposing the legislation.

But Liberman softened his tone on Tuesday. “If Minister Landver isn’t fired from the government and the defense establishment is allowed the possibility of drafting a new bill that’ll be brought for Knesset approval in the summer session, it’ll be possible to avoid fresh elections,” Liberman wrote on Facebook.

Liberman reiterated that his party would vote against the legislation, which he dubbed the “evasion bill,” and said he has no interest in early elections.

Polls released by Israel’s main news channels Monday night showed Yisrael Beytenu barely squeaking into the Knesset.

While the coalition would retain a two-seat majority if Yisrael Beytenu were to jump ship, Netanyahu has said the government cannot continue with such a slim margin.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Infighting over the bill during the past week has pushed the government to the brink of elections, with parties issuing competing ultimatums over remaining in the coalition.

The legislation is backed by the United Torah Judaism party, which has threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if the 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 this week.

While the crisis is ostensibly over the military exemption bill, leaders of coalition parties have insinuated that Netanyahu may be engineering the crisis in order to call early elections as a referendum of sorts on his rule, ahead of a possible indictment.

The prime minister is under investigation in multiple corruption investigations, and facing police recommendations to indict him in at least two cases. He is further embattled by deals signed recently by two of his former confidants that will see them testify against him in a third case.

Netanyahu has denied doing so and repeatedly stressed he has no interest in early elections.

Alexander Fulbright and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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