PM recalls 'historic mistake' that gave left victory in 1992

Israel heads toward elections as Jewish Home says it will leave coalition

Netanyahu says he will still try to ‘preserve right-wing government,’ but Jewish Home says elections now inevitable after PM rejects Bennett’s demand he be made defense minister

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

The Jewish Home will leave the coalition, bringing down the government and forcing new elections, senior sources in the Orthodox-nationalist party told The Times of Israel Friday.

The Jewish Home party’s decision came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett’s demand to be made defense minister in a Friday afternoon meeting between the two.

The sources said a date for elections had not been agreed upon. Elections are formally set for November 2019, but it is now expected they will be held between March and May, with Netanyahu pushing for a later date and other parties seeking an earlier one.

Netanyahu said in a statement, however, that he would continue to try to preserve the right-wing coalition. He also made a series of telephone calls to coalition chiefs telling them there was no reason to dismantle the coalition at this stage.

Netanyahu “stressed the importance of making every effort to preserve the right-wing government and not to repeat the historical mistake of 1992 when the right-wing government was overthrown, the left came into power and brought the Oslo disaster to the State of Israel,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu also told Bennett that “the rumors that a decision to go to elections had been made were incorrect,” the statement said.

According to a Jewish Home source, however, “It became clear that in light of the resolute position of Kulanu Chairman, Minister Kahlon [who has called for early elections], there was a need to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government.”

“On Sunday, the date of the elections will be coordinated between the heads of the coalition parties.”

Bennett said Thursday he had asked Netanyahu for the portfolio after Avigdor Liberman resigned the post on Wednesday. The party said this was an “ultimatum” for it to stay in the government.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from his office following the ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during a press conference in the Knesset on November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By pulling his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition, Liberman left the government with a narrow majority, with just 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats. The religious nationalist Jewish Home party then quickly declared it would topple the government if its leader Bennett is not given the defense portfolio.

With no Jewish Home, the coalition would go down from 61 seats to just 53. The government must have the backing of at least half of the 120 seat Knesset to survive no-confidence motions.

While in theory Netanyahu could bring another party into the coalition instead of Jewish Home, all opposition parties have declared their intention to run against him and the possibility of them joining is highly unlikely.

Bennett has long criticized the Netanyahu government’s reluctance to respond more forcefully to Gaza rocket attacks, and has advocated ground incursions into the Gaza Strip. Liberman, quitting the government, said he was doing so to protest Israel’s acceptance of an informal truce Tuesday that put a halt to the latest Hamas-Israel escalation in which Hamas fired over 400 rockets into Israel.

Netanyahu said in his statement after the meeting that he had told Bennett of his intention to keep the defense portfolio “in the light of the critical challenges currently facing the State of Israel.”

The prime minister appeared to present the possibility of keeping his government together, saying in his statement that he would meet with coalition leaders early next week and hoped they would “act responsibly and not to make a historic mistake in overthrowing a right-wing government.”

He is reportedly set to meet separately with Kulanu’s Kahlon on Sunday.

But the Jewish Home sources said it was too late and that the rejection of the party’s demand to be given the defense portfolio meant elections were inevitable.

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