Coalition chiefs on Tuesday evening hailed a compromise deal achieved at the last minute which seems to have solved a coalition crisis that had almost dismantled the government, with a jovial Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking the opportunity to mock the opposition.
“That was scary, wasn’t it?” Netanyahu quipped to political rivals during a brief speech in the Knesset plenum following the agreement, referring to the scenario of early elections being called. “I’m glad the color has returned to your cheeks. I know that I saved you from massive disappointment, because had there been elections I’d be back here [at the lectern] and you’d continue to throw out commentary.”
The speech came less than an hour after party leaders emerged from days of infighting to reach a compromise agreement meant to stave off early elections and allow the 2019 budget to pass. Speculation had ramped up in recent days that the government would call new elections as early as Tuesday.
“I said yesterday that I’d make a final supreme push to avert elections and continue to lead this good government, which is yielding superb achievements for Israel,” the prime minister said. “I thank my coalition partners for showing responsibility so that we can continue to lead the State of Israel with determination and success – in security, the economy, and foreign relations.”
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted unanimously to allow coalition party leaders freedom in instructing their faction how to vote on an ultra-Orthodox-backed bill exempting Haredi students from joining the IDF. The vote marked the first step in the implementation of the deal.
According to the deal, the conscription bill will pass its first of three votes later this week, before the Knesset goes to its spring recess on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Yisrael Beytenu party’s five lawmakers, who are fiercely opposed to the law, will be permitted to vote against it.
The bill will then be amended according to recommendations to be drafted by the Defense Ministry, and will face its final two votes in the summer. The 2019 state budget will also be approved, as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has demanded.
The deal appeared designed to allow each side to claim victory in the standoff.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman boasted that all his demands had been approved, even though the legislation he opposes will eventually be promoted by the government.
“Our word is our word!” the Yisrael Beytenu party chief said in a statement, echoing his slogan from the last national elections. “The framework we demanded all along has been accepted in full: Yisrael Beytenu will vote against the draft-dodging bill. By the start of the summer session [in mid-April], a Defense Ministry professional team will draft a bill that will form the basis of a government bill. Legislation on religion and state will be frozen. We will continue to defend the status quo.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, said in a statement that “common sense has won. The national interest has prevailed.”
“I congratulate my friends in the coalition who played a part in solving this crisis,” Bennett added. “We will continue to serve Israel. A lot of work is still ahead.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s party member, similarly said that “together we have prevented unnecessary elections. I always said this crisis was solvable.”
Earlier, senior sources in the coalition were quoted by multiple news outlets as saying Netanyahu had decided not to dismantle the government, having gotten “cold feet.”
Some had accused Netanyahu of seeking early elections as a way of clinching another mandate before a possible bribery indictment.
Infighting over the enlistment bill during the past week has pushed the government to the brink of elections, with parties issuing competing ultimatums over remaining in the coalition.
The ultra-Orthodox threatened to torpedo the 2019 state budget if the conscription bill does not pass on preliminary reading this week, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit if the budget is not passed.
The published agreement includes voting down an opposition-led motion to dissolve the Knesset and schedule fresh elections, passing the conscription law in preliminary reading while allowing the Yisrael Beytenu party to vote against it. Netanyahu will refrain from firing Yisrael Beytenu Minister Sofa Landver, who on Monday appealed the approval of the law by a ministerial committee.
According to precedent, a sitting minister can’t vote against a government ministerial decision. However, according to the reportedly emerging deal, ministers will request that the prime minister not fire her and guarantee it was a one-time incident.
Liberman on Monday had threatened to quit the coalition and thus usher in new elections if Landver is fired from her ministerial post for opposing the legislation.
But Liberman softened his tone on Tuesday. “If Minister Landver isn’t fired from the government and the defense establishment is allowed the possibility of drafting a new bill that’ll be brought for Knesset approval in the summer session, it’ll be possible to avoid fresh elections,” Liberman wrote on Facebook.
Liberman reiterated that his party would vote against the legislation, which he dubbed the “evasion bill,” and said he has no interest in early elections.
Polls released by Israel’s main news channels Monday night showed Yisrael Beytenu barely squeaking into the Knesset.
Alexander Fulbright and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.