Fractured coalition set for crucial day that could end in election call

Fractured coalition set for crucial day that could end in election call

Controversial conscription bill to face key ruling in ministerial committee before possible Knesset vote, likely to be followed by proposal to dissolve parliament

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 7, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 7, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

With no agreement on how to solve the ongoing coalition crisis, the government faces a number of key tests Tuesday that could decide whether Israelis will go to the polls within the next few months, a move that politicians and pundits increasingly say appears to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred choice.

Netanyahu spoke by phone with Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman late Monday night in an attempt to find a solution to the crisis over an ultra-Orthodox conscription bill, but neither released statements following their discussion nor reported any progress.

A coalition source said after the talks that there was “very little chance” for progress, the Walla news site reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

On Tuesday afternoon, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will hear an appeal by Immigration Minister Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beytenu against a decision to allow the Knesset to vote on the controversial legislation.

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 this week.

Liberman, a vociferous opponent of the bill — which is seen as giving the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dodge the country’s mandatory military draft — was insistent on Monday that his party will oppose it, fueling speculation that a snap vote as early as June was all but assured.

Should Liberman pull his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition over the bill, leaving it with 61 seats out of 120, that would likely spell early elections, as Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not lead a government with such a razor-thin margin.

Although not expected, if the Ministerial Committee for Legislation accedes to Landver’s request to block the bill, the ultra-Orthodox parties will seemingly have no option but to fulfill their promise to leave the coalition.

If the committee overrules her appeal, the Knesset may vote on a first draft of the bill as soon as Tuesday evening.

In his Monday comments, Liberman said that he would leave the coalition if the bill passed its final readings but remained ambiguous about what he would do if it was approved in its first reading. He also said that all five of his party’s Knesset members would vote against each reading of the bill, including Landver, the only member of his party who is both a legislator and a minister.

Speaking to Israel Radio Tuesday morning, Communications Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a close ally of Netanyahu, said that if Landver votes against the bill “she will certainly be fired” as a minister. “That is the accepted practice for a government member who votes against the government,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on October 27, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a possible further complication, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein approved a request Monday by opposition parties Yesh Atid and Meretz to allow a vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament and set a date for elections, if the conscription bill is brought before the plenum.

The Zionist Union faction had tried to present a dissolution bill earlier Monday, but was prevented by protocol that prevents a first vote on new legislation in the final week of the Knesset sitting. On Thursday, the Knesset will go on recess after the four-month winter sitting.

In a letter to Edelstein, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg and Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelach argued that a dissolution bill should be given the same privileges as the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill, which the coalition is planning to vote on this week.

“Voting on the conscription bill will be an exception to the general rules, and the same exception should be made for the opposition,” they wrote.

In response, Edelstein said that the dissolution bill would face a vote immediately after the conscription bill.

Haaretz reported that despite publicly imploring his coalition allies in a Knesset speech on Monday to work to prevent early elections, Netanyahu has in fact been actively seeking to dissolve the Knesset and hopes to amass a parliamentary majority to do so by Wednesday.

According to the report, Netanyahu wants to schedule the elections for June 26, and hopes to garner support from both the coalition and the opposition for the plan.

And Culture Minister Miri Regev, a close Netanyahu ally, set off a flurry of speculation when she was caught on camera at the Knesset on Monday afternoon texting an assistant, “Cancel the hotel. Elections are on.”

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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