Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his coalition partners on Sunday not to bring down the government, citing security challenges ahead and hinting at future Israeli military action against its enemies.
Mr Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been making last-ditch efforts to avoid the collapse of the government, weakened by the resignation of his defence minister. Political pundits predict a snap vote could come as soon as March, instead of November as scheduled. "I spoke with all the coalition heads. I told them this is the time to show responsibility – don't bring down the government, especially not at this security-sensitive time," he said in televised remarks.
Defence minister Avigdor Lieberman's resignation, announced on Wednesday over what he described as the government's lenient policy towards an upsurge of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, left the government with a majority of only one seat in parliament. That put the fate of Mr Netanyahu's coalition at the mercy of its partners, who have seen the four-term prime minister's popularity take a rare hit in an opinion poll that showed Israelis were unhappy with him over Gaza.
Earlier Mr Netanyahu met his finance minister, Moshe Kahlon of the centre-right Kulanu party, who has urged setting an early election date. Hitting back at criticism of his decision to accept a ceasefire with Gaza's rulers Hamas, Mr Netanyahu dropped heavy hints about a future Israeli military offensive.
“We have an entire year until the election. We are in the midst of a campaign and you don’t pull out in the middle of a campaign or play politics. State security is beyond politics,” he said. “I will not say this evening when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it.”
Mr Kahlon said on Saturday that governing with a one-seat majority was unsustainable. His call was echoed by members of the nationalist Jewish Home whose head, Naftali Bennett, asked to succeed Mr Lieberman as defence chief but was turned down by Mr Netanyahu who kept the job for himself.
Minutes before Mr Netanyahu’s speech, Jewish Home announced that Mr Bennett and another minister from his party would make an announcement in parliament on Monday, raising speculation they would resign and strip the prime minister of his majority.
A poll published on Wednesday by Hadashot TV news showed Likud falling to 29 from 30 parliamentary seats after months of polls that have shown it gaining power. Only 17 per cent of respondents were happy with Mr Netanyahu's policy toward Gaza, where he agreed to a ceasefire – dubbed by Mr Lieberman as "surrender" – after militants from its ruling Hamas group launched almost 500 rockets into Israel on Monday and Tuesday, and Israel carried out dozens of air raids.
Mr Netanyahu's re-election chances could also be affected by a series of corruption cases against him in which Israel's attorney-general is weighing his indictment. An election would complicate promised moves by the United States towards reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts that collapsed in 2014. The Trump administration has said it would unveil a peace plan soon. – (Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell. Editing by Andrew Heavens, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and David Evans)