Election Talk Swirls as Rifts Grow Over Draft Issue

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R.) seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After a meeting with chareidi political leaders Motzoei Shabbos that brought no new developments, and threats Sunday morning by various coalition partners that they would leave the government if the “draft crisis” was not resolved to their satisfaction, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu essentially threw the ball into the courts of the chareidi parties and Yisrael Beytenu, saying that if either quit the coalition, he would be forced to call new elections.

While the resignation of United Torah Judaism and Shas from the government would immediately trigger a coalition crisis, as the government would not have a majority in the Knesset, the resignation of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu would not necessarily have that effect, as the government would still have 61 members. But speaking before Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, the prime minister said that he could not head such a government. “One thing is clear,” he told ministers. “A government of 61 MKs cannot last. I have heard this morning that even Likud MKs are threatening not to vote with the government unless their specific demands are met. Sixty-one MKs is not an option. We have no choice but to seek a compromise” that satisfies both the chareidi parties and Yisrael Beytenu, he said.

On Motzoei Shabbos, Liberman said that if the government supported a draft bill in line with the proposals by UTJ, his party would leave the government. “There are times when you have to go with what you believe, and not what is politically expedient. This is one of those times,” Liberman wrote in a social media post. Earlier, Liberman accused the government of “capitulating” to UTJ by working with it to develop a bill that would regulate the draft of yeshivah students.

Meanwhile, the Likud attacked Education Minister Naftali Bennett for comments that he made in a weekend interview, which implied that it was Netanyahu himself who was fomenting the coalition crisis – so that he could call for new elections, with his popularity at nearly an all-time high, according to recent polls. “As the prime minister is seeking to solve this crisis, Bennett is busy campaigning for himself,” the Likud said in a statement. “If Bennett was really interested in ensuring a rightwing government, he would promise to remain in the current government until the time of scheduled elections in November 2019.”

Earlier, Bennett said that the coalition crisis was being “manufactured” by Netanyahu, who could easily resolve it. “This is a ‘fake’ crisis that could easily be fixed,” he told Reshet Bet Sunday. “It all depends on Netanyahu. The public will not forgive him if he drags us to new elections.”

“Afterward, I will be required to commit to a new government, with or without an indictment,” Bennett said, referring to the possibility that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will press charges against the prime minister within the next few months. “It’s not okay. There is a limit.”

Hardening his rhetoric against the prime minister, Bennett said that “if Netanyahu forces elections on the public for personal reasons, the public will settle a score with him and we will consider running for the premiership.” Last week the Jewish Home leader said he would only run for prime minister “after the Netanyahu era.”

Shas leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri said given the opposition within the coalition to the draft bill, Netanyahu’s conditions prove that he wants elections and that negotiations are a “waste of time.”

During the meeting between Netanyahu and the chareidi parties, the prime minister clarified that three conditions must be met in order to solve the crisis surrounding the draft law: the drafting of a law that would be agreed upon by the attorney general and all the chareidi parties; the agreement of Kulanu to support the law until its final enactment; and a commitment that the move would leave all parties in the coalition, including Liberman.

By giving these conditions – notably the seemingly impossible, to get Liberman to stay on in the government after the passing of the draft law – and then stating Sunday that he will not remain with a coalition of just 61 MKs, chareidi party leaders suggested Sunday that Netanyahu is in fact driving them to new elections.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) said Sunday that all the coalition partners want a solution that doesn’t involve elections. “The crisis is solvable and has a solution. We have to decide whether to bring down a rightwing government for no reason.”

“But if Netanyahu demands elections, they won’t be until the end of the year,” she added, insisting that the coalition parties would only agree to a long election campaign and not a three-month blitz campaign as is the prime minister’s rumored preference.