Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that he would meet on Sunday with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party, in a last-ditch effort to save his flailing coalition following the sudden resignation last week of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister over the Gaza ceasefire.
Kahlon and other coalition members, as well as opposition parties, had called for early elections given the departure of Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party, leaving Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition with a 61-59 majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
In a Hebrew tweet on Saturday, Netanyahu wrote that he would meet with Kahlon ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting to convince him not to prompt the fall of the coalition.
“If Kulanu doesn’t topple the coalition, the coalition stands,” wrote Netanyahu, adding that “a right-wing government should not be brought down.”
“All Likud members are interested in serving the country for another year, until the end of the term in November 2019,” Netanyahu said.
מחר בבוקר אפגש עם משה כחלון לפגישה מכרעת לפני ישיבת הממשלה, בניסיון אחרון לשכנע אותו לא להפיל את הממשלה.
אם סיעת כולנו לא תפיל את הממשלה- יש ממשלה. אסור להפיל ממשלת ימין.
כל חברי סיעת הליכוד מעוניינים להמשיך לשרת את המדינה שנה שלמה נוספת, עד סיום הקדנציה בנובמבר 2019.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) November 17, 2018
Elections are formally set for November 2019, but rivals and allies have been pushing for an earlier date between March and May of next year, with Netanyahu seeking to complete the term.
Netanyahu’s coalition has also faced threats from the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, which declared it would topple the government if Bennett were not given the defense portfolio after Liberman’s departure.
With no Jewish Home, Netanyahu’s coalition would shrink from 61 seats to just 53. Alternatively, without Kulanu, the coalition would have just 51 seats. The government must have the backing of at least half of the 120 seat Knesset to survive no-confidence motions.
Earlier Saturday, opposition head and Labor leader Avi Gabbay called for new national elections to be held as soon as possible.
“We are calling for new elections now, as soon as possible,” Gabbay said at a cultural event in Tzur Hadassah according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
“The time has come for Israel to have a government that offers hope,” he said. “Elections are needed to bring Israel back to the path of courage and initiative.”
Also Saturday, Likud MK Yoav Kisch said that Kahlon was the only one who could decide whether elections would be held earlier than November next year.
Speaking at a cultural event in Shoham, Kisch warned it would be a “mistake on Kahlon’s part to push for early elections while the 2019 budget still needs to be amended.”
Kahlon and fellow coalition partner Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) had earlier this week urged Netanyahu to call early elections, citing the turmoil in the prime minister’s government.
Kahlon said it was the “most responsible course of action” in the wake of Liberman’s resignation.
Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, similarly told the prime minister that holding elections earlier than planned was “in the best interest of the state.”
On Friday, a Netanyahu confidant told the Haaeretz daily the prime minister was hoping to delay the dissolution of his cabinet by several weeks so that he could confirm the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff and the Israel police chief.
Coalition sources told the paper they believed Netanyahu still hoped to make changes to election laws in order to lower the electoral threshold, though he made no mention of the matter during his discussions with party leaders on Friday.
However, Netanyahu said in a Friday statement that he was working to preserve his right-wing coalition, and warned that new elections could see a left-wing government come to power. In the statement, he stressed the importance of not repeating the “historical mistake” of electing a left-wing government in 1992 that brought on the “Oslo disaster.”
He also made a series of telephone calls to coalition chiefs telling them there was no reason to dismantle the coalition at this stage.
In his meeting with Bennett, the prime minister said that rumors that he had already decided to call early elections were “false,” according to the statement.
But a Jewish Home source later said that it became clear that early elections must be held in the wake of Kahlon’s endorsement. The source said there was “no possibility of continuing the current government,” and said head of coalition parties would meet on Sunday to set a date for the vote.
The political crisis began after an undercover Israeli raid in the Gaza Strip early last week went awry. The raid led to two days of intense cross-border fighting. Gaza’s Hamas rulers fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, while Israeli warplanes targeted scores of Hamas military sites in Gaza.
After two days, Egypt brokered an informal truce between Israel and Hamas. Though Netanyahu averted a war, he drew blistering criticism from both the right and left for his decision to accept the terms of the agreement after the unprecedentedly intense two-day rocket barrage on Israel’s south.
Liberman resigned in protest on Wednesday. In his resignation letter, the outgoing defense minister said Netanyahu had capitulated to terrorism.
“What we are doing right now is buying quiet for a heavy price with no long-term plan to reduce violence toward us,” he said in the letter. “To put it lightly, our response was drastically lacking to the 500 rockets fired at us.”
AP contributed to this report