A Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon on a bill exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service was pushed off until the evening at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request.
The decision to delay the meeting fueled speculation that Netanyahu was seeking more time to maneuver, as the bill’s advancement has divided the coalition and raised the possibility of early elections.
It also meant that an opposition-backed vote to dissolve the Knesset and schedule fresh elections would take place before the committee meets, allowing for the possibility of the government’s collapse without ministers having to take a stance on the bill.
The decision on whether Israel will go to early elections was widely perceived Tuesday afternoon to rest with Netanyahu, after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman appeared ready to soften his position.
The postponement of the legislation committee meeting, in which ministers will hear an appeal by Yisrael Beytenu minister Sofa Landver against a decision allowing the Knesset to vote on the bill, came after Liberman on Monday had threatened to quit the coalition and thus usher in new elections if Landver is fired from her ministerial post for opposing the legislation.
According to precedent, a sitting minister can’t vote against a government ministerial decision.
But Liberman softened his tone on Tuesday. “If Minister Landver isn’t fired from the government and the defense establishment is allowed the possibility of drafting a new bill that’ll be brought for Knesset approval in the summer session, it’ll be possible to avoid fresh elections,” Liberman wrote on Facebook.
Liberman reiterated that his party would vote against the legislation, which he dubbed the “evasion bill,” and said he has no interest in early elections.
While the coalition would retain a two-seat majority if Yisrael Beytenu were to jump ship, Netanyahu has said the government cannot continue with such a slim margin.
Infighting over the bill during the past week has pushed the government to the brink of elections, with parties issuing competing ultimatums over remaining in the coalition.
The legislation is backed by the United Torah Judaism party, which has threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if the 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 this week.
While the crisis is ostensibly over the military exemption bill, 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.
The prime minister 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.
Netanyahu has denied doing so and repeatedly stressed he has no interest in early elections.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.