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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu coalition partner pulls back from triggering Israeli election

Jewish Home party walks back from earlier threats to follow Yisrael Beiteinu out the door

Key members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition announced on Monday that they would not resign, averting a collapse of the Israeli prime minister’s government.

In a much anticipated morning press conference, Education Minister Naftali Bennett — Mr Netanyahu’s main opponent who heads the extreme-right Jewish Home party — walked back from earlier threats to resign, even though “the State of Israel stopped winning” under Mr Netanyahu.

“It's better if the prime minister beats us in a political battle than if [Hamas chief Ismail] Haniyeh beats us,” Mr Bennett said, standing alongside Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu stressed Israel’s security in an appeal to his coalition partners not to leave the government.

"We are in a particularly complex security situation," he said. "In times like these, you do not overthrow a government. It's irresponsible. We have another full year until elections."

The challenges to the Israeli premier’s leadership increased last week after a botched Israeli intelligence operation inside the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip left seven Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead and led to the biggest flare-up of hostilities since the 2014 war.

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After two days of bloody exchanges of rockets and bombs, Israel and Hamas reached a short-term ceasefire.

Shortly afterwards, hawkish Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman appeared on television to announce his resignation, ostensibly in protest against Mr Netanyahu’s decision not to escalate Israeli strikes in Gaza, which he denounced as "buying short-term quiet, with the price being severe long-term damage to national security".

“As far as I'm concerned, what happened yesterday — the truce combined with the process with Hamas — is capitulating to terror,” Mr Lieberman said.

Mr Lieberman’s resignation and the departure of his Yisrael Beiteinu party from government left Mr Netanyahu’s coalition with a one-seat majority in parliament.

Mr Bennett quickly announced that he wanted the position of defence minister, staking his support of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition on receiving the coveted portfolio.

But Mr Netanyahu rejected the ultimatum and instead gave himself the portfolio, making it one of several ministries the prime minister now heads. Mr Bennett accepted that but called on Mr Netanyahu to be more right-wing in his leadership.

Talks between the battling factions had reached a stalemate by the weekend, leading to widespread speculation that the government would fall and parliament would call for early elections.

Nonetheless, Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party continued to make the case against early elections. In a prime time press conference on Sunday, the prime minister rejected early elections, saying that he “has a plan” and had “risked my life time after time to safeguard our lives here in the land of Israel”.

The final say, then, was left to Mr Bennett. The nationalist firebrand is widely popular among far-right Israelis and is viewed as Mr Netanyahu’s main electoral threat.

Although Mr Bennett ultimately backed down on Monday, he did mention the failure to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar as one of Mr Netanyahu's failings, raising the stakes that it could be carried out soon.

Mr Bennett though came in for criticism of his own, with Mr Lieberman tweeting: “Now I know why we lost our deterrence.”