Netanyahu Tells Lawmakers at Knesset: If There Are Elections, We'll Win – but We're Not There Yet

Israel is veering toward snap elections after defense chief Lieberman vowed his party will vote against the compromised bill on exempting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, March 12, 2018.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset Monday that "if there are elections, we will win – but we are not there yet." Netanyahu is facing the prospect of early elections as he remains embroiled in scandal surrounding several criminal investigations.

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"The hour is late but not too late, we must make one last effort to keep the government in its current composition," he said. 

Netanyahu blasted opposition lawmakers, saying that "you stood here and you determined, passed verdicts in an authoritative tone. You said I ruined the relations with the U.S. – they’ve never been stronger. You said I exaggerated the Iranian threat – the whole world recognizes that threat."

>> Netanyahu's coalition partners are convinced he's still set on elections | Analysis >>

The opposition, he charged, "wants the government to remain because it's afraid of elections." Turning to his coalition partners, Netanyahu said that "because of the immense challenges, I call on my friends – chiefly among them [Defense Minister Avigdor] 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."

All of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset members, including Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, will vote against the compromised bill on exempting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service, said Lieberman at a meaning of the party’s MKs Monday afternoon.

The controversial bill lies at the center of a conflict between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, which vehemently opposes the bill in its current form. Both sides have threatened to disband the coalition if their demands regarding the bill are not met, which would prompt a snap election. Israel's next election is currently scheduled for November 2019.

It is still unclear whether Lieberman's opposition to the bill is the final straw that will lead to the break-up of the coalition government and snap elections. 

“This is a classic fake law, a theater of the absurd,” Lieberman said. The defense chief made it clear that his party would leave the government coalition if the bill passed its final reading in the Knesset and became law, and not just if it would pass a preliminary vote.

The government coalition has enough votes to pass the bill without Yisrael Beiteinu, and now the ball is in the court of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. Earlier, a number of Kulanu MKs said they would not support the bill if Lieberman did not support it.

Yisrael Beitenu MKs also said Monday their party would vote against the compromise reached Sunday night between Benjamin Netanyahu and the ultra-orthodox coalition parties regarding the bill.

Education Minister and leader of Habayit Hayehudi party Naftali Bennett spoke after Lieberman and maintained the current impasse is a "fake crisis."

"It's not only a fake crisis," he said, "there is fake leadership here, which prefers chasing after polls to telling voters the truth." Bennett called on all coalition members "to be leaders."

"Let's do the right thing for Israel," he said, "and let's continue to have a good national government."