Netanyahu, coalition heads hold 11th-hour talks to avert early elections
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Netanyahu, coalition heads hold 11th-hour talks to avert early elections

Ultra-Orthodox leadership said to take second look at compromise, as fight over conscription threatens to topple government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (l) at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (l) at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an apparent last-ditch effort to head off early elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held meetings Sunday night with leaders of coalition parties.

Two key figures in the current crisis, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) head Yaakov Litzman and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman, met with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday night, followed by Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon.

The round of meetings seemed to mark a shift from earlier in the day, when the coalition party leaders were entrenched in their positions and refusing to compromise. Sources in Likud indicated that Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox leaders would reach an agreement.

Litzman, the deputy health minister, and Liberman, the defense minister, were both absent from a coalition leadership meeting Sunday morning, called by Netanyahu to try to bridge gaps over a bill that would exempt ultra-Orthodox seminary students from the military draft.

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft, while Kahlon, the finance minister, has threatened to quit his post and the coalition if the budget is not passed this week.

Liberman has insisted throughout the crisis that he would not support any version of the conscription bill that is not drafted by his own ministry and the IDF, and served the army’s needs first.

In a possible sign that the parties may be trying to walk back from the brink, Hadashot TV news reported Sunday night that ultra-Orthodox religious leaders had not, as previously reported, explicitly rejected a compromise bill proposed by Netanyahu on Saturday night.

On Sunday afternoon, the Council of Torah Sages, a panel of rabbis that holds sway over several members of UTJ, sent a letter to UTJ lawmakers insisting that they continue to demand full passage of the conscription bill, and refuse to vote for the 2019 state budget before it passes into law.

The letter seemed to demand that they reject outright the prime minister’s proposed compromise. But by Sunday evening it emerged that the letter in question was formulated by a single official, Rabbi Mordechai Stern, secretary to the Council of Torah Sages, and that the rabbis had not decided to reject Netanyahu’s proposal.

Sources in UTJ told Hadashot that the rabbis were later given copies of the proposal and would rule on the party’s position.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018 (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The game of brinkmanship has sparked the most severe coalition crisis yet for the three-year-old Netanyahu government.

Earlier on Sunday, Likud officials said there was no progress on talks to end the crisis, implying that a declaration of snap elections was imminent.

“The coalition leaders’ meeting was held in a good atmosphere,” a statement from the party said, adding, “There is still no agreed upon [legislative] formula between ultra-Orthodox parties [UTJ and Shas]. The coalition leaders are waiting for their version and afterwards will continue the discussions in order to solve the crisis.”

The crisis continued despite an overnight summit between Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, in which Netanyahu presented his conditions for ending the standoff: full agreement from the ultra-Orthodox on a compromise version of a new draft bill, a commitment from Liberman to let the bill pass in parliament, and a commitment from Kahlon to vote in favor.

Netanyahu has effectively told his coalition partners that he is willing to go to elections, and would only work to prevent the government’s collapse if he received up-front assurances that the other parties in the government didn’t plan to topple it down the road. The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted.

Earlier Sunday, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett, the education minister, said he would rethink support for the prime minister if early elections were called over his legal woes.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

For his part, Netanyahu has insisted throughout the day that he wished to avoid early elections. “We are working toward a stable government that will continue until the end of its term in November 2019,” Netanyahu told his Knesset faction on Sunday morning.

“In order for that to happen,” the prime minister said, “all of the factions must come to an agreement and decide to continue together. We are working to try and achieve this because Israeli citizens want a stable government that will last its intended time.”

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, the interior minister, said Sunday that given the opposition within the coalition to the conscription bill, Netanyahu’s conditions prove that he wants elections and that negotiations are a waste of time, Army Radio reported.

Kahlon, meanwhile, made clear his Kulanu party’s willingness to go to early polls. The defection of its 10 MKs would mean the end of the coalition. Asked on his way to the cabinet meeting Sunday morning about the possibility of the government dissolving due to the crisis, he said: “We are ready for elections. Of course.”

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