Liberman, Bennett caution against early elections as coalition tensions mount

Defense minister accuses ultra-Orthodox parties of pushing government to the polls; Kulanu leader says it’s ‘unpleasant’ to be in government plagued by corruption allegations

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Then Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset on July 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset on July 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The leaders of several coalition parties on Monday warned of the prospects of early elections amid heightened tensions roiling the government over the so-called police recommendations bill, criminal investigations into its leaders, and a proposal to close mini-markets on Saturdays.

Slamming the Shabbat bill, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman pledged he would not leave the government despite his objections to the proposal, while accusing the ultra-Orthodox parties of paving the way for early elections.

The Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett urged coalition leaders to act “responsibly” to avoid the “unnecessary” elections, while Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon hinted at an exit in saying it was “unpleasant” to be a government minister in a coalition alongside politicians knee-deep in a slew of criminal investigations.

Speaking during the weekly Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, Liberman fumed at the ultra-Orthodox parties for their proposed legislation on the Jewish day of rest, calling it  a “blatant violation of the coalition agreements” and a “blatant violation of the status quo.”

“We will vote in the Knesset against this bill,” Liberman said of the proposal, which was approved by the cabinet on Sunday over the objections of Yisrael Beytenu. The proposal, initially slated for a first plenum vote on Monday, was later delayed. The coalition will still likely be able to muster up a majority for the bill even without the five lawmakers of Yisrael Beytenu.

The Shabbat bill, sponsored by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, would grant the ministry the power to oversee and reject local ordinances relating to whether business may remain open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that runs from Friday evening through till Saturday night.

Though the bill would make an exception for mostly secular Tel Aviv, it could lead to stores in other places being forced to shut down for the Jewish day of rest. The measure came after the High Court upheld Tel Aviv’s right to allow markets to stay open on Shabbat.

The defense minister, however, stressed he won’t break up the coalition over the fight, in this “sensitive” time for Israel’s security.

“If the government goes to elections, it will be because of the Haredi parties,” he declared, slamming the ultra-Orthodox’s “unilateral” steps on the Western Wall mixed-gender plaza and train maintenance work on Shabbat.

Aryeh Deri with Avigdor Liberman during a plenum session in the Knesset, July 29, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A short while after Liberman spoke, Education Minister Naftali Bennett commended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for removing himself from the so-called police recommendations bill on Sunday.

The revised bill by Likud MK David Amsalem, which would not apply retroactively, was expected to be advanced next week. It would prevent police from issuing recommendations for indictment to prosecutors upon wrapping up their investigations. Before Netanyahu said the legislation wouldn’t apply to his cases, it was largely seen as a bid to shield the prime minister from the public fallout should investigators conclude there was an evidentiary basis for an indictment against him in two separate probes.

“I expect that now we will focus on important and significant bills to the State of Israel, such as the Jewish state bill,” Bennett said, also listing a proposed amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to allow the Knesset to circumvent the Supreme Court. For those laws, said Bennett, it would befit the “right-wing government to fight with all its strength.”

“From here, I also call on all the coalition parties to act responsibly and cooperate to avoid early and unnecessary elections,” the Jewish Home party leader added, without elaborating.

Earlier on Monday, Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon expressed unease about the criminal investigations into various coalition leaders, from  Netanyahu to Welfare Minister Haim Katz to coalition chairman David Bitan.

Bitan was grilled by police for over 12 hours on suspicion of bribery and breach of trust during his tenure as deputy mayor of the central city of Rishon Lezion, with another interrogation expected later in the week.

“This is a bad time,” the finance minister conceded. “It’s unpleasant to be a minister in a government at this time with all the investigations.”

Netanyahu in recent weeks has said he was not seeking early elections.

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