Senior Likud source: Still unclear if Netanyahu wants to avoid elections

Party official says early elections could yet take place despite ultra-Orthodox compromise, with most Likud lawmakers ‘not excited about the idea’

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may still want elections within the next three months and could be actively working to bring them about despite a compromise deal reached late Sunday with the ultra-Orthodox parties on drafting members of the Haredi community into the army, a senior Likud source said Monday.

“It’s still unclear whether Bibi wants elections or not,” the party official told The Times of Israel, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

“Elections are certainly still on the table even with the conscription agreement,” the official added, even as some coalition sources seemed to indicate the standoff was at an end.

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 state budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft. The threat prompted a coalition crisis after Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, threatened to quit his post and take his party out of the coalition if the budget was not passed this week.

An 11th-hour deal brokered Sunday night was meant to stave off a snap poll but it was unclear Monday morning whether the agreement was enough to hold the coalition together, given coalition party Yisrael Beytenu’s ongoing opposition to the conscription bill.

“That may not be enough. It still leaves an unstable coalition,” said the Likud official, who asked not to be named and clarified that the comments had not been coordinated with the prime minister.

The source added, however, that regardless of Netanyahu’s position, “most of Likud is not excited about the idea” of the government not serving out its term, which is supposed to extend until November 2019.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second right) leads the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

On Sunday, Netanyahu said that a coalition without the Yisrael Beytenu party, which would mean a razor-thin majority of 61 lawmakers out of 120, was “not an option.”

Despite statements from Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers confirming that they would oppose the bill, Netanyahu’s conditions for allowing the government to continue made clear that Yisrael Beytenu must only allow the conscription bill to pass, but need not support it. And even if all five Yisrael Beytenu MKs vote against the measure, it could indeed still carry.

Speaking to Army Radio Sunday morning, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett said he thought the agreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties was enough to prevent immediate elections.

“I estimate that there will not be elections soon; I hope there will not be,” he said. “I want elections when they are scheduled, for there to be stability between elections so that we can get the important work done.”

For his part, Netanyahu insisted throughout Sunday that he wished to avoid early elections. “We are working toward a stable government that will continue until the end of its term in November 2019,” he 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.

The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted.

Polls have shown Likud handily winning at least 25 seats should elections be held now, enough to stay in power, though Netanyahu’s ability to form a new coalition, or one with the same right-wing partners, could be hampered.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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