Netanyahu jettisoned snap vote bid after Labor withdrew its support – report

Avi Gabbay reportedly told coalition members that his opposition party would not support early elections after senior party figures pressured him to change tack

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Israel's Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel's Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two days after early elections were averted with a compromise agreement over an ultra-Orthodox conscription bill, the opposition Labor party has emerged as a possible cause for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent about-face on the matter.

Avi Gabbay, the leader of Labor and of the Zionist Union faction composed of it and the Hatnua party, has maintained that he supported early elections. But senior figures in the faction said they had in fact pressured him to change tack and convinced him to tell the coalition that Labor would not vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset, the Haaretz daily reported Thursday.

According to the report, a “unified front” of senior party lawmakers, that included opposition leader Isaac Herzog, faction chairman Yoel Hasson and MKs Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich, told him they opposed elections in June.

After Gabbay was persuaded not to support early elections, the report said, he delivered the message to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the coalition Jewish Home party. Bennett then passed the message on to Netanyahu, who realized he didn’t have a majority to dissolve the Knesset and go to elections, the report said.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and other coalition party heads reached an agreement to end a crisis over a contentious IDF enlistment bill, ending rampant speculation that a snap election would be called as early as that evening. The prime minister was widely seen as supporting early elections as a way of cementing his rule ahead of a possible bribery indictment.

Netanyahu took credit for the agreement, taunting the opposition for what he said was its fear of elections.

“That was scary, wasn’t it?” Netanyahu teased political rivals at a speech in the Knesset plenum, referring to the scenario of early elections being called. “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 offer commentary [from the back benches].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gabbay’s spokesman vehemently denied the report, claiming that coalition parties, fearing poor election results, had been the ones to pressure Netanyahu to end the crisis.

“For the entire week Avi Gabbay supported bringing elections forward to the earliest possible time and even began work preparing campaign headquarters. The Zionist Union even presented a bill to dissolve the Knesset,” a statement from Gabbay’s office read. “The ones who were scared of elections and prevented them, while at the same time authorizing a law that allows mass draft dodging from army and national service, were the panicky coalition members who saw polls predicting they would be fighting to pass the electoral threshold.”

Coalition sources told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Netanyahu had been ready to collapse his government and call early elections, but backed down when his own party colleagues told him they wouldn’t support the move.

According to the agreed-upon deal, the conscription bill will now be frozen until the Knesset returns from its recess in mid-April, when a government bill drafted by the Defense Ministry will be proposed and merged with the private bill, taking the army’s personnel needs into account as the Knesset takes up once again the question of ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions.

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.” Coalition party leaders had insinuated that the prime minister was trying to engineer early elections as a referendum of sorts on his rule ahead of a possible indictment.

The prime minister is under investigation in multiple corruption investigations, and faces police recommendations he be indicted for bribery in at least two cases. He is further embattled by deals signed recently by two of his former confidants that will see them testify against him. He denies any wrongdoing.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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