Netanyahu survives threat of early elections after minister’s U-turn

Israeli PM hangs on to thin majority as far-right education minister decides not to quit

 Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: in a speech, cited unspecified security challenges ahead and hinted at future action by Israel against its enemies. Photograph:  Abir Sultan/EPA

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: in a speech, cited unspecified security challenges ahead and hinted at future action by Israel against its enemies. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

 

Political pundits were already picking potential dates in the spring for early elections as Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and head of the far-right Jewish Home party, issued a damning indictment of the government’s security policy during a Monday morning news conference.

Last week, after the surprise resignation of Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister left Binyamin Netanyahu with a wafer-thin majority of 61 out 120 Knesset members, Jewish Home issued the prime minister with an ultimatum: appoint Mr Bennett as defence minister or we will topple the government.

Citing what many perceive as Israel’s mild response after Gaza militants fired almost 500 projectiles into southern Israel last week, Mr Bennett said Israel under the leadership of Mr Netanyahu has lost its power of deterrence.

Hamas and Hizbullah grow more emboldened by the day because they believe we’re afraid to confront them,” he continued. “What the prime minister calls ‘prudence’ is perceived by our enemies as hesitation and weakness – that’s a very fine line.”

But, instead of resigning, he announced that Jewish Home would remain in the government, even though Mr Netanyahu has taken the defenxe portfolio for himself.

“I don’t know how long this government can last with only 61 Knesset members – this will be an uphill battle. But we’re willing to give it a try,” Mr Bennett said. “If the government chooses the right path, and acts like a true right-wing government, then it’s worth a try. The ball is in the prime minister’s court.”

‘Irresponsible’

In a Sunday night announcement, timed to coincide with the prime-time evening news broadcasts, Mr Netanyahu warned his remaining coalition partners against forcing early elections, saying such a decision would be “irresponsible” because of current security concerns.

“In such a period you don’t topple a government, in such a period you don’t go to elections,” he said, without specifying what security threats he was referring to.

Despite the periodic exchanges of fire across the Gaza border, Israel is more concerned with the threat from the north: the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon is believed to possess more than 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel.

“We will overcome our enemies,” he said. “And I tell you in advance, it will require sacrifice.”

Mr Netanyahu believes his reputation as Mr Security has been badly tarnished by last week’s Gaza violence and he would like to see the government, which has another year in office, run its full term.

He would also like to be prime minister when the attorney general decides, probably early next year, whether to charge him in relation to a series of corruption cases. If he is indicted, it is expected that some coalition partners will urge him to step down.