Netanyahu huddles with party heads as coalition teeters after resignation

Jewish Home party maintains its demand that leader Naftali Bennett be appointed defense minister in place of resigning Avigdor Liberman, or else it will join opposition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, September 16, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, September 16, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began holding discussions with senior coalition members Wednesday in an effort to hold together his government, following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and an ultimatum by Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.

The departure of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu leaves the coalition with a narrow margin of just 61 seats against the opposition’s 59, greatly raising the possibility of early elections before they are officially scheduled in November 2019.

Ratcheting up coalition tensions, the Jewish Home party issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu saying it will quit the coalition and topple the government if Bennett, currently Education Minister, isn’t appointed as Liberman’s successor.

Netanyahu held meetings with heads of coalition parties and senior members of his Likud party, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Jewish Home, which has 8 lawmakers and could easily fell the government if it bolts, will convene at 6:30 p.m. for a closed-door meeting at the Knesset to review the situation, the Ynet website reported.

“This is the time to give the defense portfolio to Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home,” Jewish Home party chair MK Shuli Moalem-Refali told Channel 10 news. “Without the security portfolio the Jewish Home will not continue to be a partner in the government.”

Likud sources earlier said Netanyahu would hold the defense portfolio and was looking to avoid a snap poll, despite rampant speculation in recent weeks that he would call early elections.

Further fueling speculation that new elections may be called, Likud officials presented ultra-Orthodox coalition partners with several possible dates for the new Knesset elections, the Walla news site reported.

According to the report, Netanyahu spoke about new elections with Moshe Gafni, leader of the Degel Hatorah faction in the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party.

Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties are hoping to pass a law on ultra-Orthodox draft to the IDF before the current Knesset is dissolved. A new law must be passed by December 2 by court order, or a previous arrangement by which yeshiva students were able to receive military draft deferments will expire.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni chairs a Knesset Finance Committee on March 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Likud denied the Walla report, saying Netanyahu and Gafni arranged a meeting but “haven’t discussed a date for elections.”

Liberman said his resignation decision came in light of the ceasefire reportedly agreed on Tuesday between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza, following an unprecedentedly fierce two-day barrage of over 400 rockets fired by Hamas and other terror groups toward Israel in the worst escalation in violence in the Strip since 2014.

Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from defense portfolio during a Jerusalem press conference, November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu defended his decision to accept a ceasefire with terror groups in Gaza after saying, “The public can’t always be privy to the considerations that must be hidden from the enemy.”

The security cabinet reportedly agreed to the ceasefire with Hamas on Tuesday afternoon, in a decision that several cabinet ministers later said they opposed. The decision was slammed by some opposition leaders, who called it a capitulation to terror after the deadly two-day conflagration.

One person was killed and dozens of others injured in the attacks on southern Israel, which also caused significant damage to buildings. An IDF soldier was seriously injured when an anti-tank rocket was fired at a bus near the Gaza border.

People gather outside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel responded by bombing over 150 targets in Gaza. Six Palestinians were killed in the attacks, according to Gaza sources.

The ceasefire was hailed by Hamas as a victory ostensibly imposed on Israel on Hamas’s terms. Rocket fire at Israel came to a halt on Tuesday afternoon, after two days of incessant attacks.

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