Talks to avert early elections fizzle as two party heads skip meet
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Talks to avert early elections fizzle as two party heads skip meet

Likud says ultra-Orthodox factions still disagree over compromise conscription bill; sources accuse PM of not wanting a solution

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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

The Likud party said Sunday that there was no progress on talks to end the coalition crisis threatening to bring down the government due to a failure by ultra-Orthodox factions to agree among themselves on a military conscription bill they have vowed to pass.

“The coalition leaders meeting was held in a good atmosphere,” a statement from the party said, adding, “There is still no agreed upon [legislative] formula between ultra-Orthodox parties. The coalition leaders are waiting for their version and afterwards will continue the discussions in order to solve the crisis.”

Despite the Likud statement, neither United Torah Judaism chairman Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman nor Yisrael Beytenu head Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attended the meeting. Hebrew media reports said the meeting was disbanded within minutes due to the pair’s absence.

The meeting came hours after an overnight summit between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers fell apart following the release of conditions for ending the standoff: full agreement from the ultra-Orthodox for a new bill — which Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman would have to commit to letting pass while Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon would have to vote in favor of.

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 Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit his post if the budget isn’t passed this week.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Liberman, the defense minister, has been adamant that he will not support any version of the bill that isn’t drafted by his own ministry.

Coalition sources charged that the Sunday parley was a ruse and that “Netanyahu acted surprised when Liberman didn’t show up but it was a ‘fake meeting’ in the first place,” Walla reported.

Earlier Sunday Netanyahu 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.”

Many have seen the prime minister’s demand as an effort to get coalition parties to continue to back him even if he is charged in a series of bribery scandals. Earlier Sunday, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett said he would rethink support for the prime minister if early elections were called over his legal woes.

Shas leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said given the opposition within the coalition to the conscription bill, Netanyahu’s conditions prove that he wants elections and that negotiations are a waste of time, Army Radio reported.

Kahlon, however, 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, he said: “We are ready for elections. Of course.”

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

Responding to the deadlock, Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli said that he planned to submit a bill Monday that would dissolve the government and set fresh elections for June.

“I will submit a bill tomorrow morning for the dissolution of the Knesset and the holding of elections of June 26,” Shmuli tweeted. “The time has come for another government.”

Shmuli said he’ll request that the Knesset fast-track the bill so it can be passed within two days of its submission.

Netanyahu reportedly favors elections in July, while the Knesset’s current term is only set to expire near the end of 2019. A snap poll would likely mean that the attorney general’s decision on indictment in two corruption cases against the prime minister would come after the ballot.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in return for certain benefits.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The prime minister has also been linked to three other corruption cases currently being investigated and last week, a former Netanyahu family top media adviser, Nir Hefetz, became the third of his former close aides to agree to cooperate with police.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in any of the cases.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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