Netanyahu Trying to Stabilize Coalition Amid Talk of New Elections

Prime minister convenes meeting with heads of coalition parties in attempt to stabilize government.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Livni, left, sitting next to Netanyahu,in meeting with Kerry in Jerusalem, on June 29, 2013. Credit: AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convening a meeting Wednesday with the heads of the other coalition parties in an effort to diffuse tensions and stabilize his government. The move comes after a series of clashes between the parties, particularly over his decision not to move ahead by means of a cabinet decision a proposed reform of religious conversion policy, a flagship legislation of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah faction.

Sources close to Netanyahu describe tonight’s meeting as “routine,” on the eve of the Knesset’s winter session, which begins next week. However, Likud officials said on Tuesday that Netanyahu has declared over the past few days that the coalition is about to break up and will not survive more than a few more months.

Clashes between Hatnuah and Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu are unceasing, the sources say, and there is no doubt they could cause matters to deteriorate to the point of an election at any moment.

“If Netanyahu really believes that the coalition is in such a state, then tonight’s meeting will be very significant for the future cooperation between the factions,” the sources added.

Along with the shelving of the conversion bill, concerns over the health of the coalition revolve around other issues: Netanyahu is working energetically to move up to the date for the internal election for Likud chairman to the coming weeks. According to the Likud charter, the election of party chairman is to be held no more than six months before Knesset elections.

In a series of meetings over the past few days, the prime minister is said to have reiterated that his government will not hold out more than a few months.

Netanyahu met on Sunday with his rival in Likud, MK Moshe Feiglin, to convince the latter to support advancing the date for the primaries for party head, a position that Netanyahu currently holds. Netanyahu is understood to have told Feiglin that he expects the coalition to be dismantled within a year, adding that it will probably not last long enough to approve a state budget for 2016. Moving the Likud primaries forward would lay the groundwork for the party’s next Knesset election campaign.

Netanyahu’s request to meet with Feiglin, who represents the right wing of the party, likely reflects the prime minister’s view that without Feiglin’s support, he would have a hard time convincing the Likud central committee that the primaries should be moved forward. Netanyahu sought to establish an understanding with Feiglin in part to weaken the influence of central committee chairman MK Danny Danon, who has already said that he would work to head off an early election of the party’s head. Feiglin has declared his own intent to run against Netanyahu.

Assessments in the coalition that an election is not on the horizon are shared by quite a few opposition lawmakers. “The Netanyahu government will complete at least three years of its term,” a senior opposition member said on Tuesday.

Netanyahu and his coalition partners have no interest in an election now, the opposition lawmaker said, adding that Netanyahu has not managed to bring back voters who fled Likud to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. “He could end up with a shrunken Likud on the day after the election. [Yesh Atid chairman and Finance Minister] Yair Lapid is expected to crash in the election and there is no reason for him to give up the 19 seats he has,” the opposition figure said, adding that Livni, around whom the current crisis swirled over the conversion reform bill, has already declared that she would not bolt because of it.

“She didn’t leave because of the peace process, and there’s no reason she should do so now. After all, the members of Hatnuah don’t even know if they will pass the voter threshold,” he said.

Hatnuah took a major blow with Netanyahu’s decision not to move the conversion bill ahead by means of a cabinet decision. The bill’s framer, MK Elazar Stern, said he believed his party would advance the reform as a bill in the Knesset’s winter session. The bill has already passed its first reading and Stern said if it does not move forward into law, “and if it turns out that the prime minister is a liar, I will not remain part of his coalition. I do not intend to leave Hatnuah. I was elected in Hatnuah and I will not move to any other party, but I will stop voting with the coalition and where needed I will vote against it. If Hatnuah throws me out, let it happen. I want to believe that if I resign from the coalition, Hatnuah will follow me.”

However, Hatnuah chairwoman Livni and her fellow faction member Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz sent conciliatory messages Tuesday to Netanyahu that they do not intend to bolt the coalition and bring about a new election. Peretz called on his faction to remain in the coming months.

“Talk of the crisis in the coalition is exaggerated and must be brought back into proportion. The government’s right to exist depends on its ability to strengthen the social fabric and the weaker classes in Israel in the coming months,” he said.

Lapid also said he believed an election is not in the offing. In an interview with the news website "Walla!," Lapid said he supported Hatnuah’s conversion bill and that he believed that he will approve – as finance minister – the next state budget as well. “There is no crisis. The coalition is strong and the government will not fall,” he said.

Opinion polls show that Hatnuah and Yesh Atid could suffer severely if elections are moved up.

Habayit Hayehudi lawmakers were harsh in their criticism of Livni over the intention to move the conversion bill ahead by means of legislation. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel on Tuesday threatened to resign the coalition if the law passes. He said Habayit Hayehudi was in dialogue with Livni, Netanyahu and others over the issue. “We are doing this to find a respectable way out of this matter,” Ariel said.