In what seemed like a last-ditch effort to save his government from breaking apart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday morning that there was “no need” to go to national elections, suggesting it would be dangerous to do so “during this period of sensitive security.”
“In the past few days, I have spoken with all the heads of the coalition, and I will meet with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon this evening in a last attempt to prevent the government falling,” the prime minister said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
The meeting between Netanyahu and Kahlon is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
Party leaders Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), both significant members of Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, have agreed to push for national elections to be held on March 26, 2019, Hadashot TV news reported Saturday night.
The report came as both party leaders voiced their clear support on Saturday for a national vote well ahead of November 2019, when the current government’s term is set to end. The Jewish Home party has threatened to bolt the coalition if Bennett is not be given the defense portfolio in the wake of Avigdor Liberman’s resignation from the post, a move reportedly opposed by Kahlon.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said on Sunday that Netanyahu had agreed to give Bennett the defense ministry, but that the Jewish Home chair was determined to go to elections.
At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu accused Bennett and Kahlon of ushering in left-wing administrations and therefore endangering Israel amid threats to the country’s security.
“At this time of sensitive security, there is no need for elections, nor would it be right,” he said. “We all remember what happened when elements in right-wing governments led their downfall, as in 1992 and as in 1999, which brought about the Oslo disaster and the catastrophe of the [second] intifada.”
Bennett threatened last week to pull his party out of the coalition and force new elections if he is not appointed defense minister instead of Liberman, who, in announcing his resignation on Wednesday, condemned Israel’s ceasefire with Hamas after a deadly exchange in the south.
Slamming the government for what she described as a “leftward slide,” Jewish Home’s number two, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, said on Sunday that “the only justification for the continued existence of the government until November 2019 is if Bennett will be allowed to revolutionize security and restore to Israel the deterrence lost under Liberman.”
Despite Netanyahu’s apparent criticism of his junior coalition partners, neither Bennett nor Kahlon have said definitively that elections are inevitable.
“There is still a possibility that the government would be able to continue. However, the slim majority of 61 would make that highly unlikely, given some of the important legislation that remains on the docket for the remainder of the Knesset,” sources close to Bennett told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
Top surrogates of the prime minister nonetheless continued to rail against Bennett, accusing him of forcing the early collapse of a right-wing coalition and threatening to return the left to power.
“We have a nationalist government that could continue for another year,” coalition chairman MK David Amsalem (Likud) said in an interview with Israel Radio Sunday morning.
“Let there be no doubt, we’re going to elections because of Naftali Bennett. In my view the talks [to prevent the government’s collapse] are borderline hopeless. Naftali is pitting us all against each other, giving us grades. It’s unprecedented chutzpah,” he charged.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), meanwhile, said that he opposed giving the Defense Ministry to Bennett, saying that a member of his own party should be appointed instead.
“There are a number of suitable candidates in the Likud,” he told the Ynet news site. “At the moment of truth, a defense minister from a small party will prefer considerations of political survival over considerations of the state.”
Asked if Bennett was the best person for the job, Katz said the question reminded him of when John Lennon was asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world and replied that Ringo was not even the best drummer in the Beatles.