Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night said there was “no reason” to go to early elections over a brewing coalition crisis, amid reports that infighting over legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service could topple the government and send Israelis to the polls as early as mid-2018.
“There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with goodwill that will not happen,” Netanyahu told reporters ahead of his departure to Washington for a week-long trip.
He predicted the government would survive through November 2019, when elections are currently scheduled to be held.
Earlier on Saturday, senior coalition partners had reportedly warned the government was on the brink of collapse.
“Israel will be headed to the polls within the coming months,” Hadashot news reported Saturday, estimating the date to be June, nearly a year-and-a-half before the full tenure of Netanyahu’s government is set to end.
The report said that while neither Netanyahu nor any of his coalition partners would like to see elections held early, none of them could withstand the negative publicity that a compromise over the decisive legislation could bring.
The TV report cited unnamed senior coalition members who estimated elections were imminent — unless the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners backed down in the coming days.
“By the end of next week, Israel could find itself facing an election in June 2018,” said the Hadashot report.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, speaking to Channel 10 on Saturday night, said the Likud party was not afraid of early elections, though it prefers to see out the current term.
“We see a rise in support for us in the polls, but for the public[‘s sake], the government should live out its term. There is no political crisis that can’t be resolved in a real way,” she said. “I recommend that the coalition parties hovering around the electoral threshold, who are likely to disappear with the elections, resolve this crisis.”
An unnamed Likud minister, meanwhile, told the Haaretz daily the ultra-Orthodox parties were unwilling to compromise on the draft.
“The coalition has been taken hostage by the internal fights in the courtyard of the rebbe of Gur,” said the minister. He was referring to a directive by the spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party’s Yaakov Litzman to apply pressure on the government to advance the legislation.
“The Haredim have stopped acting rationally and are unwilling to accept any compromise,” the minister is quoted as saying.
Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have threatened to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved exempting members of their community from the military draft — a move that would bring down the current government.
On Friday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon threatened to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if next year’s budget is not brought to a vote in the next two weeks as planned, a move that would also lead the government’s collapse.
Kahlon, whose Kulanu party’s 10 seats are vital to the coalition’s majority, promised in a statement to “fight to the end” for the budget.
His ultimatum to Netanyahu came amid growing coalition sparring over the military draft legislation.
Ministers are working on a compromise that would see a draft exemption bill debated — and presumably passed — by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation before the Knesset begins discussing the 2019 budget. Under the proposal, the bill will not be voted upon in the plenum until after the budget has been passed.
The compromise is intended to reassure the ultra-Orthodox parties that the bill will at least begin advancing through the system before the Knesset’s summer recess.
At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take, after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds it undermined the principle of equality before the law.
The court afforded the government a year to put into place a new arrangement, giving it the opportunity to pass a new law.
On Monday, the ultra-Orthodox parties submitted two bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of official service to the state in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and repeatedly refers back to the proposed Basic Law in defending the arrangements.
The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has been working on its own proposal for the ultra-Orthodox draft, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — who leads the intensely secular Yisrael Beytenu party — saying that only the ministry’s proposal would receive the support of his lawmakers.
On Saturday, Culture Minister and Likud MK Miri Regev responded to reports predicting the collapse of the government, saying that the Likud party was not worried by the prospect of early elections.
“There is only one party in the coalition that has nothing to fear by new elections. It’s called the Likud,” she said at a Purim banquet in Rishon Lezion, according to the Ynet news website.
She told party-goers that the ruling party enjoys “a high level of trust from the public,” and would not bow to outside pressures. Ynet said her remarks were met with chants of “Bibi” from the crowd.
Recent polls have shown that Netanyahu’s Likud party is well placed to win elections, should they be held early.
A February 24 survey conducted by Hadashot news showed that the Likud would win 28 seats if elections were held that week. While down from its current 30, the poll result was the best yet for the right-wing party, after police recommended earlier this month Netanyahu be indicted in a pair of corruption investigations.
Last month, police recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of serious corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the two other cases.
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.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in these cases.