Confirming that Israel will be holding elections in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Likud faction on Monday that he was confident of winning re-election and that the current coalition would form “the core” of the next government too.
Netanyahu would not comment on whether the timing of the vote was connected to the corruption investigations against him, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit weighing whether to indict him. But opposition MKs were adamant that this was the reason. Israel is going to elections because the prime minister is facing possible indictment for corruption, said Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern. “Make no mistake.”
Netanyahu said the decision to call elections seven months earlier than formally scheduled was a unanimous decision of the coalition parties, and hailed the current government’s “outstanding achievements” over its four years in office.
His Likud ministerial colleague Ze’ev Elkin said it was clear that the coalition “could not continue to function” after opposition Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid withdrew his support for a bill to regulate the draft of ultra-Orthodox youth, leaving the coalition short of a majority for the bill, which is opposed by some ultra-Orthodox MKs. “Yair Lapid bears responsibility” for Israel going to elections early, Elkin said.
Netanyahu, in his short speech to Likud colleagues, praised Israel’s ties with the US, highlighting the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu vowed that Israel would continue to prevent Iran establishing itself in Syria, tackle Hezbollah’s attack tunnels, and deal with Hamas. The IDF is “ready for all scenarios,” he said.
Asked what had changed in the weeks that passed since the crisis last month when he fought vigorously and successfully to avoid elections following the resignation of defense minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu noted that, at the time, the Israeli army was about to begin its sensitive operation to neutralize Hezbollah’s attack tunnels, but that now this operation was in full swing, implying that the security situation had calmed.
Setting out what are likely to be other election issues along with security, Netanyahu hailed the country’s economic growth, and noted that the minimum wage is “higher than ever.”
He also cited the nation-state law, which enshrines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, in the list of accomplishments. “We’ll complete our work,” he vowed.
His Likud, he predicted, will win the elections, and the current coalition will form the “core” of the next coalition.
“With God’s help,” Netanyahu said, he and the Likud party were aiming to keep leading Israel in the direction it has followed these past years.
Netanyahu spoke soon after coalition leaders issued a joint statement announcing elections, amid a series of coalition crises and deliberations over his possible indictment.
In a part of the meeting closed to the press, Netanyahu was less upbeat on his chances of re-election, telling party loyalists that “there are no guarantees, and we will have to fight mightily.”
“The real test will come in mobilizing our base — persuading our people to vote Likud, not for anyone else, and to show up and vote. If we manage to do this, we’ll win,” he said, according to a Likud statement.
Earlier Monday, the heads of the five coalition parties said in a joint statement, “Out of national and budgetary responsibility, the leaders of the coalition parties decided, by unanimous agreement, to dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April after a four-year term.”
The announcement came after MK Lapid announced that his opposition Yesh Atid party would vote against the coalition’s bill on the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men, claiming that the government was preparing an “under the table” deal that would change the import of the legislation.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court granted the government a further month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January. Without the extension, thousands of yeshiva students would have become eligible to be drafted.
Elections will likely mean a further extension will be granted.
The decision to go to the polls comes just a month after Liberman resigned as defense minister and pulled his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition, leaving it with a paper-thin majority of just 61 out of 120 Knesset members.
The decision also comes as Mandelblit is set to begin reviewing materials to decide on possible charges against Netanyahu this week, embarking on the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement.
State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said last Wednesday he was wrapping up recommendations on three cases against Netanyahu for Mandelblit, which reportedly include recommendations that the premier be indicted on bribery charges over an affair in which he is accused of kicking back regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.
Mandelblit is expected to convene his legal team to begin working on the hundreds of pages of testimony and other evidence in the three cases on Monday, the Ynet news site reported.
Mandelblit’s office said it would continue its “professional process” but experts believe the attorney-general is highly unlikely to announce a decision on indictments prior to the new election date.
Hadashot TV news quoted legal sources Monday afternoon discounting the possibility that the attorney general could now issue a decision in the corruption cases before elections. The TV report suggested that Netanyahu preferred to try to secure re-election before the attorney general decides on the cases against him, so as to be able to battle them from the strengthened position of a freshly re-elected prime minister.
Elkin said that politicians should “not be pressuring” the state prosecution, which he was sure would do its work professionally.
He was also sure, he said, “that the prime minister will prove his innocence.”