Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed speculation he would use a coalition fight over ultra-Orthodox conscription as a pretext to call fresh elections amid his mounting legal woes.
Speaking to reporters in Washington Monday after meeting US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said he and his chief of staff Yoav Horowitz have been working to resolve the crisis over legislation exempting Haredi students from military service.
“There is a clash here between the different partners that doesn’t allow for a solution,” said Netanyahu, according to the Walla news site. “I want to arrive at an agreement that will allow the government to finish its term.”
“At the moment, I cannot announce that [an agreement] is within reach,” added the prime minister.
Sources close to Netanyahu told the Haaretz daily that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leader of the United Torah Judaism party, was making it increasingly difficult to reach a solution due to his intransigence on the matter.
Over the past week, ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have threatened to vote down the 2019 budget — a move that would bring down the current government — unless legislation is approved exempting members of their community from the military draft.
On Monday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon threatened to quit his post if the 2019 budget was not passed by next week, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman insisted his party would not fold to the demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
The 2019 state budget can technically be passed until the end of the year, but Kahlon, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been adamant it be passed earlier, before a six-week recess beginning March 18.
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.
The government has until September to re-legislate the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Haredi lawmakers pushing two parallel bills that would force the state to recognize long-term Torah study as a form of service, and the Defense Ministry hammering out its own version of the legislation.
As the impasse over the draft exemption legislation has grown, so too has speculation that Netanyahu could seek a snap vote to secure his reelection, preempting an indictment on corruption charges. Elections are currently scheduled to be held in November 2019.
Adding to the prime minister’s troubles, police announced Monday that former Netanyahu adviser Nir Hefetz had agreed to turn state’s witness in the Bezeq corruption case.
The investigation, known as Case 4000, involves suspicions Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage at Bezeq’s Walla news site.
As part of the state’s witness agreement he signed, Hefetz, suspected of bribery in the case, was told that he would not serve prison time or pay a fine for his actions. He has promised to provide police with incriminating text messages and recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in several criminal cases, including Case 4000.
Officials told Hadashot TV news on Friday that suspicions against Netanyahu in the Case 4000 investigation are more serious than the accusations in two earlier cases, 1000 and 2000, in which police have recommended he be indicted for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery.
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.
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.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in any of the cases.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.