Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he is not seeking elections but that a fresh vote will be held if coalition parties can’t agree on legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service 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.
But he also said he was demanding that coalition members agree to remain in the government until the end of its term.
“I want to bring a bill with as wide as possible agreement that will be acceptable to the attorney general and that will pass with a [larger] majority than usual, but also to get a commitment from all the [coalition] partners that we’ll continue together until the end of 2019,” he said on his airplane en route to New York from Washington, DC.
“I’m not interested in a solution that kicks the ball down the road and in another few weeks we’ll have another crisis,” he said, indicating that a deal on only the draft law may not be enough to keep his coalition afloat until November 2019, when elections are officially scheduled.
“[Only] a complete solution is acceptable to me, otherwise we’ll need to have elections. I’m not interested in that,” he added. “With goodwill it is possible to reach a solution.”
He also called on coalition parties to back away from their ultimatums for the government’s continuation.
“I call it the eucalyptus grove. Some of my friends climbed to the top of the eucalyptus and simply need to come down from the tree,” he said.
Netanyahu’s comments came as election talk has grown over the past week, with the coalition at loggerheads over a military exemption bill. Speculation has also grown that Netanyahu could seek a snap vote to secure his mandate ahead of a possible indictment on corruption charges in a pair of graft cases.
The draft legislation is backed by the United Torah Judaism party, which has threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if its bill isn’t passed. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened in response to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if the budget isn’t passed by next week.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said Wednesday that he believed it was possible to resolve the coalition crisis, adding that Israelis “won’t forgive” the government if elections are held early.
“In light of my intensive talks with the coalition partners, I am convinced that the [military] draft bill crisis can be resolved. Furthermore, it can be resolved immediately,” he said.
“The public won’t forgive anyone who at this juncture leads the country into unnecessary elections and dismantles the most socially oriented right-wing government ever to serve in Israel,” Deri added.
The 2019 state budget can technically be passed until the end of the year, but Kahlon, backed by Netanyahu, has been adamant that it be passed earlier, before a six-week Knesset recess beginning March 18.
The ultra-Orthodox parties’ insistence on passing a military conscription bill is strongly opposed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said Monday his party would not fold in the face of demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
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 that it undermined the principle of equality before the law.
The government has until September to re-legislate the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Haredi lawmakers pushing two parallel bills that would force the state to recognize long-term Torah study as a form of service, and the Defense Ministry hammering out its own version of the legislation.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.