Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on his coalition partners Monday evening to make a “supreme effort” to save the government from collapse, as a crisis over the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men threatened to bring on early elections.
“If there are elections, we will face them and we’ll win too. But we’re not there yet,” he said. “The hour is late, but it is not too late.”
Speaking before the Knesset plenum in a session called by emboldened opposition parties, the premier’s chief message was to members of his coalition.
He called on the heads of coalition parties to act responsibly and “make a supreme effort to keep this good government in place for the long term.” He added, “This effort must be made tonight, here and now, and we will make it.”
Netanyahu also lashed out at the opposition, claiming support for him was at an all-time high, and saying the public “decides time and again that you will sit there and I will stand here, as prime minister of Israel.”
He asserted that opposition parties were “afraid of elections… I’ve never seen anything like it,” because “public support for me and my government is immense… The people give us their mandate. And if there are elections, they’ll give us an even larger mandate.”
The prime minister dismissed recurring criticisms of his government.
“You said I ruined relations with the US; our relations are at an all-time high,” he said. “You said I was exaggerating the Iranian threat; today, the entire world understands that threat. You said I was leading (Israel) to international isolation; today, we see that my policies have brought Israel to unprecedented diplomatic prosperity. You said I was ruining the economy, but my policies have made Israel one of the most successful economies in the world.
“You should give some credit to the Israeli public,” Netanyahu asserted. “It can distinguish between truth and lies, between the important and the trivial, between true leadership and ‘Oh well.'”
He maintained the Israeli citizenry were largely content. “They love the country and more than that, they’re proud of the country — in stark contrast to what they hear from you and your friends in the media.”
Netanyahu had seemed poised to pull his government back from the brink Sunday night, when he reached an 11th-hour deal with the ultra-Orthodox factions in the coalition to push the conscription bill through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and bring it to a preliminary plenum vote.
But Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a vociferous opponent of the bill, which is seen as giving the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dodge the country’s mandatory military draft, was insistent on Monday that his party will oppose it, fueling speculation that a snap vote as early as June was all but assured. Should Liberman pull his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition over the bill, leaving it with 61 seats out of 120, that would likely spell early elections, as Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not lead a government with such a razor-thin margin.
‘We are not afraid of elections’
Ascending to the lectern after Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said the prime minister’s call for coalition unity was a ruse.
“Four of the heads of your coalition parties are not here, because they don’t believe you. They know that you want elections,” he said. “And they know that you want elections quickly and immediately, in order to bypass the attorney general with indictment recommendations he is set to make. That is the real decision awaiting us, the rest is just a show.”
Netanyahu is under investigation in multiple corruption investigations, and facing police recommendations to indict him in at least two cases. He is further embattled by deals signed recently by two of his former confidants that will see them testify against him in a third case. Leaders of coalition parties have insinuated that Netanyahu may be engineering the crisis in order to call early elections as a referendum of sorts on his rule, ahead of a possible indictment.
“We are not afraid of elections. We are not afraid of the verdict of any voter,” Herzog continued. “We are not afraid of elections — we are afraid of you. We are afraid of what you are doing to the state and society. We are afraid of what you are doing to Israeli democracy, to the rule of law, to law enforcement agencies, and to gatekeepers (of democracy).”
Herzog said he genuinely believed the prime minister was a “patriot” who loves his country. But, he added, “that is why you have to resign… You must not drag the country by the hair into an endless [legal] saga that will last years and years. Because we have a state to run here.”
Israeli citizens, he said, “want trustworthy leadership, moral leadership, a leadership of national responsibility, and leaders for whom the country is genuinely important, more than their party or their seat. We will not let you undermine them.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to resign, saying he had made valuable contributions to the state, but that the time had now come for him to go. No prime minister with “a drop of responsibility left” would assert, as Netanyahu did in a recent Facebook post, that the police and the state prosecution were pressuring state’s witnesses to lie, said Lapid. No responsible prime minister would say that “that law enforcement authorities cannot be trusted,” he added.
Also addressing the plenum, Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni charged that Netanyahu was concerned solely with his own survival.
“Your term will end. The only question is how far you’ll go to destroy the foundations of the country,” she said.
“Just as you lied about the previous elections, you are lying now about the next ones. If you call elections — and I am in favor of elections — it will be in order for you to get to them before the public knows the truth about your personal corruption, before people who have worked with you and know you are able to tell the entire truth, and in order to hide the truth.
“You will again bring out the hate and the baiting, again you will pit people against their brothers, because you gain politically from hate,” she said.
Michal Bachner contributed to this report.