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Netanyahu’s meeting with ultra-Orthodox ends without deal

Religious parties said tasked by PM with formulating draft bill, ensuring Kahlon’s support and Liberman’s commitment to stay in coalition

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni arrives at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem for a meeting on the draft bill on March 10, 201 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni arrives at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem for a meeting on the draft bill on March 10, 201 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox coalition members on Saturday night for some two hours, but there was no sign of a breakthrough that would see a new ultra-Orthodox draft exemption bill legislated and snap elections averted.

The meeting was held amid mounting speculation that Netanyahu, who is beset by corruption allegations, could exploit the roiling coalition crisis over the bill to call elections that would shore up his rule.

According to leaks from the meeting, the ultra-Orthodox parties agreed to continue to work on a draft bill, which would then have to receive the tacit approval of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the leaders of the Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu parties, respectively.

Liberman has been adamant that he will not support any version of the bill that isn’t drafted by his own ministry.

Netahyahu insisted during the meeting that Liberman would have to commit to letting the bill pass without bolting the coalition, even if his party does not vote for it, while Kahlon and Kulanu would have to commit to vote in favor of it, sources close to the prime minister said.

In addition to Netanyahu, Saturday night’s meeting was attended by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), MK Moshe Gafni (also UTJ), and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas).

Also on Saturday night, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), who chairs the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the cabinet panel that sponsors bills, announced Saturday night that she was postponing Sunday’s scheduled meeting by a day in order to allow time to reach a compromise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R), and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod, on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In the run-up to Saturday night’s meeting, Hebrew media were rife with speculation that the prime minister was keen to head to the polls in a bid to get a fresh mandate before expected indictments in a series of corruption probes. Reports said Netanyahu favored elections in July, while the Knesset’s current term is only set to expire at the end of 2019.

The speculation was heightened when Liberman vowed earlier Saturday that there would be no compromise over the bill.

“In life, there are moments when you need to follow your beliefs and not what is convenient or advantageous,” he tweeted. “This is exactly that moment.”

Israel Radio quoted unnamed senior coalition officials as saying that Netanyahu had promised Liberman he would again be defense minister in a new government in return for providing the excuse to bring an end to this one.

Liberman denied any such deal.

The religious parties have pushed through a series of bills in recent months that Netanyahu was obliged to support, but that have been unpopular with his Likud base, such as a law closing mini-markets on Shabbat.

The current crisis began when UTJ MKs announced in early March that they would not support the 2019 budget bill unless the coalition pushed through a bill that would ensure ultra-Orthodox seminary students were automatically exempted from military service.

Kahlon, the finance minister, has threatened to bolt the government if the budget is not passed by the end of this week, when the Knesset goes on break.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is to meet with other coalition leaders on Sunday.

On Wednesday, speaking to reporters on the plane en route to New York from Washington, the prime minister said he was not seeking early elections, but a fresh vote would be held if his coalition parties failed to reach compromise 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.

Netanyahu is thought to want elections following a series of polls that indicated public support for him was strong despite a series of corruption investigations.

Earlier this week, a Channel 10 survey found that Netanyahu’s Likud would receive 29 seats, one less than it currently has in the Knesset. Yesh Atid would win 24 seats (11) if fresh elections were held, while the Zionist Union would plunge to 12 seats (24).

Last month, police recommended Netanyahu be indicted in a pair of corruption investigations, known as Cases 1000 and 2000.

He is also a suspect in the Case 4000 investigation that involves suspicions that Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him financially.

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.

Earlier this week, a former Netanyahu family top media adviser, Nir Hefetz, became the third former close aide to the prime minister to agree to cooperate with police.

He has reportedly promised to provide police with incriminating text messages and recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in several criminal cases, including Case 4000 and Case 1000.

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