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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Pressure builds on Benjamin Netanyahu to call early elections

Israeli prime minister opposes rival Natftali Bennet's bid for defence minister post and has taken it himself

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggled to stabilise his tottering government after the resignation of his defense minister this week, as a key meeting on Friday with a second junior partner ended without resolution.

A person close to education minister Naftali Bennett, who had threatened to topple the coalition by withdrawing his party’s eight lawmakers if he’s not given the defence portfolio, said the two agreed the government couldn’t be saved and a date for early elections would be set on Sunday.

In a statement from his office, Mr Netanyahu said no such decision had been taken and he would meet with heads of other coalition parties November 18 in an effort to keep his conservative government alive.

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Israeli elections seem likely after Lieberman's resignation

Gaza truce holds but Israeli minister's resignation leaves government in turmoil

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The coalition was thrown into turmoil on Wednesday when defence minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned and pulled his Yisrael Beitenu party’s five legislators out of the government, saying Mr Netanyahu wasn’t responding forcefully enough to rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

According to Mr Netanyahu’s statement, the prime minister told Mr Bennett, who also pushes a harder military line against Hamas militants in Gaza, that he wanted to keep for himself the powers of the defence minister due to “critical challenges facing the state.”

However, he added, “The prime minister stressed that it was too important to make every effort to maintain the right-wing government and not make a historic mistake.”

Any early elections aren’t expected to produce a significantly changed parliament. Polls taken before the political crisis erupted predicted little change in the Knesset’s right-left divide. Elections currently are slated for November 2019 but Israeli commentators expect them to be moved up to March or May.

Mr Lieberman’s resignation left Mr Netanyahu in control of just 61 of 120 seats in Parliament, but he had governed with such a razor-thin majority before. Mr Bennett, a political rival courting the same nationalist audience that forms Mr Netanyahu’s base, has been fiercely critical of what he considered the government’s undue restraint in responding to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

There have been months of speculation about whether Mr Netanyahu would disband an unruly government and seek a popular mandate with corruption allegations hanging over his head.

A two-year-old probe against Mr Netanyahu is inching toward conclusion, with attorney general Avihai Mandelblit due to decide whether to indict him in multiple cases. Some commentators have reasoned that if the prime minister goes to early elections and wins big, Mr Mandelblit might hesitate to take action against him.

Mr Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in the cases against him, contending he’s the victim of a leftist cabal that wants to bring down his conservative government. Polls have shown he’d win an early election, though he is now facing criticism from residents of southern Israel who are furious he agreed to a truce with Gaza Strip militants who bombarded them with rocket and mortar fire earlier this week.

It was that ceasefire and attempts to reach a long-term truce with Gaza that Mr Lieberman cited in his resignation statement, calling them “a capitulation to terrorism.” He also faulted Mr Netanyahu’s decision to let Qatar transfer $15 million to Gaza to ease the dire humanitarian situation there, saying the money would support families of militants who attacked Israel.

The current government was formed in 2015, and would be the last in a long line of Israeli coalitions to fall apart before their terms expired.