Raising stakes in coalition crisis, PM says paper-thin majority ‘not an option’

Raising stakes in coalition crisis, PM says paper-thin majority ‘not an option’

As early vote looms, Netanyahu says a government of 61 seats without Yisrael Beytenu 'cannot last' as party leaders trade barbs over blame

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 11, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 11, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday ratcheted up rhetoric threatening early elections, telling his Likud party that a government without the Yisrael Beytenu party is “not an option,” as coalition partners continued to blame each other for the crisis that appears to be leading Israelis to the polls.

“We are working toward a stable government that will continue until the end of its term in November 2019,” Netanyahu told his Knesset faction amid accusations that he is exploiting the crisis to call elections within the next three months that would shore up his rule.

“In order for that to happen,” the prime minister said of the government lasting until late next year, “all of the factions must come to an agreement and decide to continue together. We are working to try and achieve this because Israeli citizens want a stable government that will last its intended time.”

Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have not yet walked back their threat to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their community from the military draft, while the Kulanu party’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit his post if the budget isn’t passed this week.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party, meanwhile, has been adamant that he will not support any version of the bill that isn’t drafted by his own ministry.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (foreground, left), speaks to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (foreground, right), at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Liberman’s defection from the government would leave Netanyahu with 61 seats to the opposition’s 59. In an apparent admission of his determination to go to elections, Netanyahu said that a government without Yisrael Beytenu would not be possible.

“One thing is clear, a government with 61 [MKs] cannot hold. That is clear to everyone. Already this morning we understood that even members of Likud are conditioning votes in return for any number of requests. Sixty-one is not an option,” he said. “We will therefore continue to reach for a compromise.”

Likud MK Yehuda Glick announced Sunday morning that he would vote against the budget over what he called “lacking” measures included in it to ostensibly prevent smoking.

While the government was sworn in with just 61 MKs in 2015, Netanyahu worked to eventually include Yisrael Beytenu’s five Knesset members and boost his paper-thin majority by appointing Liberman as defense minister a little over a year later.

Kahlon also made clear his Kulanu party’s willingness to go to early polls. The defection of its 10 MKs would mean the end of the coalition.

Asked on his way to the cabinet meeting about the possibility of the government dissolving due to the crisis, Kahlon said: “We are ready for elections. Of course.”

The comments came amid increasing coalition infighting and finger-pointing ahead of a last-ditch meeting later Sunday to try to bring the government back from the brink.

In public comments ahead of his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu did not address the coalition crisis.

On Sunday morning, Liberman accused Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett of exploiting the crisis for his own political benefit after the education minister said he would consider challenging Netanyahu for prime minister if elections were called unnecessarily.

“I think there is a limit to the rubbish and chatter and accusations that we can hear or expect from a coalition member, but there are apparently those with other goals,” he said of Bennett during a tour of an army base Sunday morning.

“When you live from ultimatum to ultimatum then there is a bad atmosphere,” he said. “We have not presented any ultimatums, we have not created an crisis but we are not willing to live with the reality of someone putting a gun to your head. That will not be.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman (back) and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett (front) seen during a Knesset session on May 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Likud party also slammed Bennett, saying in a statement that “while Prime Minister Netanyahu is busy solving the crisis and stabilizing the right-wing government, Bennett is busy running a personal elections campaign.”

“Had Bennett really cared for the right-wing government, he would commit to staying in the government until the end of the term in November 2019. But the last thing on Bennett’s mind is to stabilize the national government headed by Netanyahu. As his remarks this morning reveal, Bennett is plotting to bring down Prime Minister Netanyahu and get himself a job arrangement,” the statement charged.

Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox coalition members on Saturday night in an ostensible effort to forge a breakthrough by meeting their demands to legislate a new conscription exemption bill and prevent snap elections over disagreements with other parties.

But after the Likud party released overnight the prime minister’s conditions for ending the standoff — full agreement from the ultra-Orthodox for a new bill which Liberman would have to commit to letting pass and Kahlon would have to vote in favor of — party leaders suggested Sunday that the prime minister is in fact driving them to new elections.

In an attempt to allow the parties more time to settle differences, Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked (Jewish Home) said Saturday night that a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which sets the legislative agenda for the week, would  be pushed off from Sunday until Monday.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

read more: