Israel moves towards early election after coalition talks failure

Political crisis grows after meeting between PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennet

Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett and prime minister Binyamin  Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in 2016. Photogrph: Abir Sultan/AP

Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in 2016. Photogrph: Abir Sultan/AP

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Israel has moved closer to early elections after prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, said it wants a vote “as soon as possible” and will press for consultations on a date on Sunday.

The call for early elections came after a meeting between Mr Netanyahu and education minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. The two men have been locked in a tense rivalry, with Mr Bennett often criticising Mr Netanyahu from the right.

Mr Bennett had demanded the post of defence minister after the incumbent, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned earlier this week in protest over Mr Netanyahu’s Gaza policies.

A senior Jewish Home official said it became clear after the Bennett-Netanyahu meeting that there “is a need to go to elections as soon as possible”. The official said leaders of coalition parties will meet on Sunday to co-ordinate the date for early elections.

The apparent failure of the Netanyahu-Bennett meeting seemed to seal the coalition’s fate.

The departure of Mr Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party had left the coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Without Mr Bennett’s Jewish Home, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition would lose its parliamentary majority.

The political crisis began with a botched Israeli undercover raid in Gaza on Sunday, which led to two days of intense cross-border fighting. Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, while Israeli planes targeted scores of targets in Gaza.

After two days, Egypt brokered an informal truce between Israel and Hamas. Mr Netanyahu averted a war, but drew blistering criticism from ultra-nationalists. Mr Lieberman resigned in protest on Wednesday.

Protests

On Friday, he toured southern Israel and accused Mr Netanyahu of being soft on terrorism. He said the Gaza policy was strengthening Hamas. He claimed the truce will put southern Israel under a growing threat from Hamas, similar to the threat posed to northern Israel by Lebanon’s heavily armed Hizbullah militia.

“It’s impossible that after Hamas launches 500 rockets at the Israeli border communities, the heads of Hamas are actually getting immunity from the Israeli cabinet,” Mr Lieberman told reporters.

“We are now feeding a monster” that will grow if not stopped, he said. “Within a year we will have a twin brother of Hizbullah, with all the implications.”

But on Friday, Hamas kept border protests widely restrained. Thousands of Palestinians participated in a Hamas-led rally along the perimeter fence dividing Gaza from Israel, with most crowds staying 300m from the fence.

However, Gaza’s health ministry said 40 Palestinians were wounded, 18 by live fire from Israeli forces. Witnesses said others were wounded in stone-throwing incidents at the usual five protest locations.

No tyre burnings or attempts to breach the fence were reported. Such acts have often triggered lethal Israeli army fire, and since the near-weekly protests began in March, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed.

Hamas is pressing for an end to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has beleaguered Gaza’s two million residents since the Islamic group took full power there in 2007.

Before the Israeli commando raid that went awry, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver the equivalent of €13 million as a first instalment to help Hamas pay civil servants long overdue salaries. The move was seen as an attempt to defuse tension, but Mr Lieberman criticised it as yet another measure that would strengthen Hamas. – AP

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