Despite Calls for Unity, Netanyahu Sets Sights on June Elections

Netanyahu trying to secure the majority he needs to dissolve Knesset, but faces opposition from inside coalition ■ Opposition also divided on holding early elections by June 26

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Oded Balilty/Pool
\ POOL/ REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made up his mind to go to early elections and is working to gain the political support he needs to disband Israel's Knesset as early as Wednesday. Netanyahu needs a majority of at least 61 lawmakers to force Israel to hold early elections by June, but the move faces strong opposition from within his and from outside it.  

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New legislation regarding enlisting Israel's ultra-Orthodox into the army – long a hot button political issue – coupled with criminal investigations against Netanyahu have spun his ruling coalition into crisis.

Despite the fact that Netanyahu called on his waring coalition partners to try to find a solution to the political crisis brewing over the legislation, the leaders of parties who met with him Monday got the distinct impression he is determined to head to elections.

>> To Bibi or not to Bibi: Does Netanyahu want early elections? | Analysis <<

According to polls published on Monday, Netanyahu's Likud party would get 30 or 29 seats and emerge as the largest party in the next Knesset if elections were held now.

Political front

Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett, a key member of Netanyahu's coalition, is trying to scuttle the plan by building a political front to block a decision to hold elections on June 26, the date Netnayahu selected, and thus persuade the prime minister to give up on early elections.

Bennett has convinced centerist Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon and ultra-Orthodox Shas’ Arye Dery to join his efforts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset, March 12, 2018.
Emil salman

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Bennett also spent a long time in the plenum with opposition chairman Isaac Herzog on Monday trying to persuade him as well. Both Yesh Atid and Meretz support snap elections, saying Netanyahu cannot rightly continue as prime minister now that police have recommended he be indicted for bribery, and with criminal investigations against him proceeding. Opposition figures have accused Netanyahu of seeking new elections to make it harder for the attorney general to indict him in the coming months. 

In the Likud, faction coordinator Aliza Barashi has been trying to collect votes and persuade MKs to support the June 26 date. For now it doesn’t seem as if Netanyahu has enough votes to support the move, but Likud may put forward a bill on Wednesday’s agenda to dissolve the Knesset, on the assumption that Zionist Union wouldn’t be able to vote against it.

At the same time, Kahlon is trying to reach a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox parties regarding the new military draft bill so that they will vote for the state budget. The Knesset opens Tuesday afternoon at 4 P.M. with a vote either on the conscription bill or on the budget. If neither comes up for a vote, it means all efforts at a compromise have failed.

In a speech to the Knesset on Monday, however, Netanyahu urged Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties to heal their rift over a proposed draft-exemption bill and thereby prevent the coalition government’s imminent collapse. 

“Because of the immense challenges, I call on my friends – chiefly among them Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox – and I tell them that the hour is late, but not too late. We must act responsibly. The country needs a stable government that functions over time. It needs our government,” said Netanyahu.

The controversial bill lies at the center of a conflict between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which vehemently opposes the bill in its current form. Each side has threatened to disband the coalition if its demands regarding the bill are not met, which would prompt a snap election. Israel’s next scheduled election is in November 2019. A compromise bill, which Netanyahu and the United Torah Judaism party reached agreement over on Sunday, would give military exemption to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who request it. Lieberman immediately announced his opposition to it.