PM Netanyahu surrounded by coalition party leaders Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Liberman, Aryeh Deri and Naftali Bennett.
(photo credit: GPO ARCHIVES)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for a five-day-long trip to the US on Saturday night without resolving a dispute on Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) IDF service that could lead to an election in June.
"We're not going to early elections," Netnayhu said as he addressed the crisis over the Haredi conscription legislation late Saturday night before boarding the plane at Ben-Gurion airport.
"There is no reason for this to happen, and with goodwill it won't. I have goodwill and I hope our [coalition] partners do as well."
Netanyahu added that he expected his government would remain in place until the regularly scheduled election date of November 2019.
Last-minute attempts to organize a meeting before Netanyahu left with Shas chairman Arye Deri and United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni failed. A source close to Netanyahu said he did not even speak to any of the UTJ or Shas leaders on the phone before he departed.
Before his departure, Netanyahu entrusted Tourism Minister Yariv Levin with mediating between coalition partners and resolving the dispute. But Levin’s associates said no meetings have been set with any of the parties involved in the dispute.
UTJ and Shas say they will not vote for the 2019 state budget unless the Knesset passes their legislation to restore the legal exemptions from military service available to full-time yeshiva students, after the High Court of Justice struck down just such a law
last year. Coalition members Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu object to the legislation and refuse to vote for it.
The head of Kulanu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, has threatened Netanyahu that he will initiate an election if the budget is not passed soon. He sent a message to Shas and UTJ that if they force an election, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid could win, and his legislation for Haredi service would be much tougher than anything passed by the current government.
Kahlon wrote on Twitter Friday that the budget must pass immediately in order to help IDF soldiers, children, the health system, Holocaust survivors, the handicapped and economic growth.
Culture Minister Miri Regev, who is close to the prime minister, said at a political rally she hosted in Rishon Lezion Saturday night that Netanyahu does not want early elections, but the Likud is the only party that did not fear such a scenario.
“If the Haredim do not become more flexible, the train will leave the station and an election will be initiated,” Likud MK Yoav Kisch warned.
The Knesset will be taking a break for Passover starting on March 15. If an election would be initiated in the few days between the prime minister’s return from Washington and the Knesset recess, it would be held 90 days later, in mid-June.
Holding an early election could enable Netanyahu to gain a vote of confidence from the public ahead of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision on whether to indict him on bribery charges. The Likud has been doing well in the polls, and on Saturday night, Netanyahu posted on social media a survey by Likud pollster Avi Degani predicting 36 Knesset seats for the party.
But initiating an election that would likely focus on clean government could be a risk for the prime minister, and would not slow down his criminal investigations or leaks from them that could harm him politically.
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett called upon his colleagues in the coalition to compromise on a balanced solution for limited Haredi IDF service and avoid an election.
“We have a good, nationalist government, and it is important to keep it stable,” Bennett said. “It is time for all sides to be responsible and stop needlessly playing games with their egos.”JPost.com staff contributed to this report.