PM only agreed to end coalition crisis under threat of party mutiny — sources

Coalition figures say Likud members made clear to Netanyahu they would vote against dissolving Knesset, forcing him to find compromise agreement to keep government afloat

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Coalition sources said Tuesday evening that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been ready to collapse his government and call early elections, but backed down when his own party colleagues told him they wouldn’t support the move.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and other coalition party heads reached an agreement to end a crisis over an IDF enlistment bill, ending rampant speculation that a snap election would be called as early as that evening. The prime minister was widely seen as supporting early elections as a way of cementing his rule ahead of a possible bribery indictment.

Speaking to the Times of Israel, a coalition source with direct knowledge of the negotiations said that Netanyahu only agreed to a deal with the other coalition parties once he understood that he would not gain the support of Likud MKs to dissolve the Knesset and call elections.

“It was made clear to him that he would not be able to reach a majority. The other parties didn’t want elections but it was the Likud that would have stopped them,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Once Netanyahu realized he may face some sort of rebellion, he decided to really look into the compromise deal.”

Coalition chiefs on Tuesday evening hailed the last-minute deal, with Netanyahu taking credit for the agreement.

“That was scary, wasn’t it?” Netanyahu teased political rivals at a speech in the Knesset plenum following the agreement, referring to the scenario of early elections being called. “I know that I saved you from massive disappointment, because had there been elections I’d be back here [at the lectern] and you’d continue to offer commentary [from the back benches].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Another coalition source said that Netanyahu “was making it look like his victory” but that “the opposite was true.”

“He was pulling the whole party along with him down the road to elections. Even this afternoon he wanted to push the other parties there,” the source said, also on condition of anonymity.

According to the source, a number of Likud MKs told coalition chairman David Amsalem Tuesday afternoon of their intention to vote against a bill to dissolve the Knesset, which was was expected to be brought to a vote if an agreement was not reached between the coalition parties.

At that point, it appeared that Yisrael Beytenu might leave the coalition due to the then-likely dismissal of Immigration Minister Sofa Landver, the only member of his party who is both a legislator and a minister, after voting against the conscription bill.

The threat by Likud MKs, the source said, was conveyed by Amsalem to Netanyahu who then postponed a meeting of the Ministererial Committee for Legislation in order to craft an agreement that allowed Landver to stay in government and vote against the bill.

The legislation was in the end presented as a private members bill and not a government proposal, annulling the practice to fire a minister that votes against it.

Amsalem declined a Times of Israel request to comment on the alleged threat by Likud MKs and the reason for the postponement of the committee meeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Coalition head David Amsalem at a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Had Liberman pulled his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition over the bill, leaving it with 61 seats out of 120, that would likely have spelled early elections, as Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not lead a government with such a razor-thin margin.

According to the agreed deal, the conscription bill will now be frozen until the Knesset returns from its recess in mid-April, when a government bill drafted by the Defense Ministry will be proposed and merged with the private bill, taking the army’s personnel needs into account as the Knesset takes up once again the question of ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions.

Earlier, senior sources in the coalition were quoted by multiple news outlets as saying Netanyahu had decided not to dismantle the government, having gotten “cold feet.”

On Monday, Likud MK Yehudah Glick said he would not support a dissolution of the Knesset. “It’s not the right move for the State of Israel,” he tweeted. “I call on my friends to join me and vote against!”

He is said to have been joined by a number of other lawmakers unhappy with what many saw as an attempt by Netanyahu to 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. He denies any wrongdoing.

The potential rebellion by Likud MKs may be the first signal of disquiet emanating from the corruption allegations and their possible consequences for the government.

Up until now, Netanyahu’s party has stood firmly behind his claims that “there will be nothing because there is nothing,” and rejected calls for the prime minister to stand down amid his growing legal woes.

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