Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday suggested that the intensifying talk of possible elections places pressure on coalition partners to compromise in order to avoid them.
Addressing the Likud secretariat meeting, where the ruling party approved a merger with Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu, Netanyahu said: “The clearer it is that we are going to elections, the more likely it is that we won’t.”
Some 30 hours before the deadline for Netanyahu to form a coalition, Likud is pressing ahead with a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, amid a standoff in negotiations with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
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.
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 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.
After repeated efforts to bridge that gap, Hebrew-language media reported Tuesday that Likud MK David Bitan had been seen roaming the Knesset telling colleagues that he thinks he has crafted a compromise on the legislation which both Yisrael Beytenu and the Haredi parties would agree to.
There were no details on the contents of the compromise, and a Likud spokesman was quick to issue a statement saying that no progress had been made.
According to the spokesman, Liberman had rejected every offer presented to him and was “dragging his feet.”
The Likud secretariat on 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.
The motion backed by the party will see four slots on the Likud slate reserved for Kulanu members: 5, 15, 29, 35, with Kahlon placed fifth.
The merger — which brings Kahlon, a former Likud minister, back into the fold of his former party — angered some in Likud and came as the country appeared poised to hold an unprecedented second election in a year as coalition talks reached a deadlock.
It also came as opposition lawmakers in the Blue and White party called on Likud members to break ranks and form a government without Netanyahu.
Should he form the next coalition, the agreement is also expected to ease Netanyahu’s planned efforts to advance an immunity law and bill limiting the Supreme Court to shield himself from prosecution in three corruption cases, which Kahlon had in the past opposed but whose Kulanu colleagues in recent days walked back their opposition.
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. But Liberman 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.
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.