Jewish Home ministers accuse Netanyahu of manufacturing ‘fake’ coalition crisis

Bennett, Shaked suggest PM behind deadlock over ultra-Orthodox draft bill; opposition says election threat created to divert public attention from intensifying corruption probes

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (R) with Jewish Home MK and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum, on November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (R) with Jewish Home MK and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum, on November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As coalition parties continue to threaten to bring down the government over legislative disagreements, Jewish Home ministers claimed Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had manufactured the crisis, with opposition lawmakers accusing him of goading elections to save himself from corruption probes he is implicated in.

Speaking on a panel at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference in Washington, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked warned that the “fake” coalition crisis over legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service could allow the left to come into power.

Shaked said it would be “irresponsible” of Netanyahu to allow the “fake crisis” to topple the current right-wing government, suggesting that prime minister was behind apparent deadlock.

“No one can promise that the left will not come to power,” she asserted.

Education Minister and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett used identical rhetoric to characterize the issue when speaking to fellow faction lawmakers on Sunday, before also leaving Israel for the Washington conference.

“It’s a fake crisis. If  Netanyahu wants to solve it, he could do so in 10 minutes,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at Blair House, the official White House guest residence, on March 4, 2018. (Prime Minister’s Office)

But Kulanu lawmaker Roy Folkman chided Bennett’s downplaying of the crisis, telling Israel Radio Monday that it was easy for the education minister to “scoff at the crisis” from his “vacation in Washington.”

“If he were here, he would see it differently,” Folkman added.

Avi Gabbay, the chairman of the opposition’s largest faction Zionist Union, told Israel Radio Monday that Netanyahu had “created the crisis” in an effort to divert public attention from the intensifying corruption probes against him.

Over the past week, ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have threatened to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved exempting members of their community from the military draft — a move that would bring down the current government.

Ministers are currently working on a compromise that would see the draft exemption bill debated — and presumably passed — by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation before the Knesset begins discussing the 2019 budget. Under the proposal, the bill will not be voted upon in the plenum until after the budget has been passed.

On Friday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon threatened to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if next year’s budget is not brought to a vote in the next two weeks as planned, a move that would also lead to the government’s collapse.

The compromise is intended to reassure the ultra-Orthodox parties that the bill will at least begin advancing through the system before the Knesset’s summer recess.

At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take, after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (L) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, at a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on November 20, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The court gave the government a year to put a new arrangement into place, which afforded it the opportunity to pass a new law.

On Friday, Netanyahu and his wife were questioned for several hours over suspicions that Shaul Elovitch, chief shareholder of telecommunications giant Bezeq, had ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus, in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him.

Officials involved in the probe have reportedly said that Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to explain away the “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against him in that case, Hadashot TV news reported. They said suspicions against Netanyahu in the investigation are more serious than the accusations of corruption in two previous cases, in which police have recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of charges, including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer in return for certain benefits.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and his wife Sara attend the Jewish Moroccan celebration of Maimouna, in Or Akiva, on April 21, 2014. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90/Pool)

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The prime minister has also been linked to another case, dubbed Case 3000, which involves suspicions that state officials were paid bribes to influence a decision to purchase four patrol boats and three Dolphin-class submarines costing a total of 2 billion euros from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, despite opposition to the deal from the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu himself is expected to be called in to testify in the case, though he has so far not been named a suspect.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all the cases.

Before taking off for the AIPAC policy conference on Saturday evening, the prime minister told reporters, “There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with good will that will not happen.”

He predicted the government would survive through November 2019, when elections are currently scheduled to be held.

But hours earlier, Hadashot news quoted senior coalition partners predicting that Israel will be heading to the polls in June, nearly a year-and-a-half before the full tenure of Netanyahu’s government is set to end.

The report said that while neither Netanyahu nor any of his coalition leaders would like to see elections held early, none of them could withstand the negative publicity that a compromise over the decisive legislation could bring.

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