Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates have reportedly told the premier that snap elections would likely deny him the time needed to pass legislation shielding him from prosecution in three corruption cases.
That was just one of the issues said Tuesday evening to be concerning the prime minister amid a deadlock in coalition negotiations, some 24 hours before the Wednesday night deadline.
Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective coalition partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox. Lawmakers are pressing ahead with a bill, which passed its first reading overnight Monday-Tuesday, to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections for September.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has announced fraud and breach of trust charges against Netanyahu in three graft cases — pending a hearing — including bribery in one of them.
Should he form the next coalition, the agreement with the other parties is expected to ease Netanyahu’s planned efforts to advance an immunity law and law change — dubbed the “override clause” — letting the Knesset re-legislate laws that have been struck down by the Supreme Court.
“Under absolutely no circumstances can we go to elections,” Channel 13 news on Tuesday quoted an unnamed Netanyahu confidant as telling the premier in recent days. “If you go to elections there will be a situation where you must go to the hearing.
“After the elections, even if you win, you will be in a race to legislate the immunity law and the override clause, and there is a high chance you won’t manage to do that before a decision by the attorney general to file charges against you,” the official added.
Following that advice, Netanyahu is doing all he can to avoid fresh elections, the report said.
Originally scheduled for July 10, the hearing has been postponed by Mandelblit to October 2-3. Netanyahu is expected to request another delay if elections are called, but senior legal sources quoted by Channel 13 have said the current date is final and will not be changed again.
However, Netanyahu is expected to face a tough challenge even if a last-minute compromise deal is reached between Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
A senior Likud official told Channel 13 that the premier will have no choice but to heed to the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ demand and make its No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich justice minister, a demand he has so far resisted.
The official explained that while Netanyahu’s first choice for the portfolio is Likud’s Yariv Levin, with the time crunch to form a coalition, there will likely not be an opportunity for the premier to hold out on the position for Levin.
Meanwhile, the TV station also reported that Likud was attempting to recruit former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, whose New Right party was some 1,500 votes short of entering the Knesset in the April 9 elections.
Nathan Eshel, who has headed coalition negotiations for Likud on Netanyahu’s behalf, has reportedly been in talks with the popular Shaked about joining the party if new elections are held, despite longtime animosity between Shaked and the Netanyahu family.
Eshel, who resigned from his position in the Prime Minister’s Office amid allegations of sexual misconduct, is said to represent just one of three parties all seeking to convince Shaked to run on their slate if a new vote is scheduled.
Likud internal regulations stipulate that to be on its election slate, one must have been a member of the party for three years — a clause used by the Likud secretariat earlier this year to block Gilad Sharon, the son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, to run for a spot on the Likud slate.
However, the secretariat, controlled by Netanyahu, decided earlier this year that Yoav Gallant be allowed to run in the party’s primary despite having only defected from the center-right Kulanu party a month earlier, meaning that Shaked’s candidacy could also be approved.
The Likud secretariat earlier Tuesday approved a merger deal between the party and Kulanu and confirmed that Netanyahu would be its prime ministerial candidate in the next election, preventing any of the premier’s rivals within the party from leading the faction if snap elections are called.
Though the secretariat vote was passed by a wide margin, Netanyahu is said to fear a mutiny by some backbench lawmakers — just recently elected to the Knesset — who could refuse to support dissolving the parliament since they aren’t likely to be reelected, especially after the Kulanu merger pushed them further down the list of candidates.
Freshman MKs Michal Shir and Ariel Kallner petitioned their party’s judicial body against the secretariat’s vote in protest at the Kulanu merger. Their petition charged that only the Likud Central Committee has the authority to make decisions such as the merger.
Another Netanyahu fear is that MKs like his rival Gideon Sa’ar could heed calls by opposition lawmakers in the Blue and White party to break ranks and form a unity government without Netanyahu.
Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the ultra-Orthodox draft bill that was approved in its first reading last July, in the previous Knesset. That version of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.
As the political crisis intensified in recent days, Likud accused Liberman of operating out of personal spite against Netanyahu, and launched a biting campaign against him. Channel 12 news reported Tuesday that Likud sources said that Liberman wanted to oust the premier over the planned immunity laws.
Liberman has brushed off the accusations, maintaining that his refusal to join a Netanyahu-led government under the proposed terms was due to his aversion to religious coercion. On Tuesday evening he reiterated that he wouldn’t budge, telling confidants that “There is no room for compromise,” according to Channel 12 news.
Holding another election so soon after the previous national vote, on April 9, would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.
Marissa Newman and AFP contributed to this report.