Netanyahu meets ultra-Orthodox leaders as election speculation swirls

Netanyahu meets ultra-Orthodox leaders as election speculation swirls

Religious parties threatened to bring down government over military exemption bill, but are backing down as PM stands tough; defense minister refusing to compromise

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes at a polling station in Jerusalem on the method of elections within the Likud party, June 14, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes at a polling station in Jerusalem on the method of elections within the Likud party, June 14, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox coalition members on Saturday night amid a mounting belief that he would use the crisis over the military exemption bill to call for early elections.

Netanyahu held talks with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), MK Moshe Gafni (also UTJ), and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas).

In the run-up to the meetings, the Hebrew media was rife with speculation that the prime minister was keen to head to the polls in a bid to get a fresh mandate before expected indictments in a series of corruption probes.

Reports said Netanyahu favored elections in July. The Knesset’s current term is only set to expire at the end of 2019.

This speculation was heightened when Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowed earlier Saturday that there would be no compromise over the bill.

“In life, there are moments when you need to follow your beliefs and not what is convenient or advantageous,” Liberman tweeted. “This is exactly that moment.”

Israel Radio quoted unnamed senior coalition officials as saying that Netanyahu had promised Liberman he would again be defense minister in a new government in return for providing the excuse to bring an end to this one.

Liberman denied any such deal.

Veteran Israel Radio political analyst Hanan Kristal said earlier Saturday that Liberman’s tough stance was likely because he believed Netanyahu was intent on heading to early elections.

Kristal pointed to recent polls indicating Netanyahu would again win elections, despite the ongoing corruption investigations against him.

Meanwhile, Hadashot news said that the ultra-Orthodox parties, who reportedly do not want fresh elections, had now received permission from their rabbis to compromise on the bill.

Walla news reported that Netanyahu was planning to tell the ultra-Orthodox parties that he would only agree to forestall elections if they promised to push no more legislation on religious issues until the end of this government’s term.

The religious parties have pushed through a series of bills in recent months that Netanyahu was obliged to support, but that have been deeply unpopular with his Likud base, such as a law closing mini-markets on the Shabbat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R), and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod, on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The crisis began when ultra-Orthodox MKs from UTJ announced last week they would not support the 2019 budget bill unless the coalition pushed through a bill that would ensure ultra-Orthodox seminary students were automatically exempted from military service.

The budget needs to be passed before the Knesset goes on break at the end of the week. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, another coalition partner, has threatened to bolt the government if the budget is not passed.

The ultra-Orthodox parties’ insistence on passing a military conscription bill is strongly opposed by Liberman, who has vowed that his Yisrael Beytenu party would not fold in the face of demands of their ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Netanyahu is also to meet with other coalition leaders on Sunday.

On Wednesday, speaking to reporters on the plane en route to New York from Washington, Netanyahu said he was not seeking early elections, but a fresh vote would be held if his coalition parties failed to reach compromise and commit to avoid infighting over the next year and a half.

Laying out his conditions for avoiding elections, Netanyahu said any bill on ultra-Orthodox enlistment must be backed by the entire coalition and provide a long-term solution.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, a compromise bill is being hammered out by the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Jewish Home leaders Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The content of the compromise bill is not yet clear, but it appears to dramatically reduce any sanctions against draft-dodging and to allow near-automatic granting of draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox seminary students.

The compromise bill is set to be raised in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, which meets after the weekly morning cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu is thought to want elections following a series of polls that indicated public support from him was strong despite a series of corruption investigations.

Earlier this week, a Channel 10 survey found that Netanyahu’s Likud would receive 29 seats, one less than it currently has in the Knesset.

Yesh Atid would win 24 seats (11) if fresh elections were held, while the Zionist Union would plunge to 12 seats (24).

Last month, police recommended Netanyahu be indicted in a pair of corruption investigations, known as Cases 1000 and 2000.

He is also a suspect in the Case 4000 investigation that involves suspicions that Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him financially.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in return for certain benefits.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) and Nir Hefetz (l) arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 13, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Earlier this week, a former Netanyahu family top media adviser, Nir Hefetz, became the third former close aide to the prime minister to agree to cooperate with police.

He has reportedly promised to provide police with incriminating text messages and recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in several criminal cases, including Case 4000 and Case 1000.

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