This coalition will survive another year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, while Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said an early election will happen in March.
The narrow, 61-seat coalition began exhibiting signs of weakness less than four hours later, when the coalition lost a vote 42-47 on a bill dealing with how the government keeps track of land ownership. The coalition later pulled most bills from the Knesset agenda for that night.
Netanyahu made his comment about the coalition staying together after Bayit Yehudi abandoned its threat to leave the government if Education Minister Naftali Bennett was not made defense minister.
“I told coalition party leaders not to topple the coalition,” Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting. “They need to show responsibility.”
Netanyahu said he is “pleased the efforts bore fruit,” adding that “we have a whole year until the election.”
In the coming year, the prime minister said, the government will bring more success to Israel. But in order for that to happen, the coalition must be disciplined, and no one in the 61-seat coalition can rebel and threaten to dissolve it.
In a clear criticism of Bennett and Avigdor Liberman – who resigned from the Defense Ministry last week, sparking a coalition crisis – Netanyahu said: “The security cabinet cannot be leaky or turned into a political battering ram. We can’t mix politics and security.”
Bennett announced earlier on Monday that he would not quit the coalition
, but would remain and make sure that Netanyahu was tough on Hamas.
However, Netanyahu said: “I don’t need supervisors from the Right. I am protecting us, our country, our children. I’ve led the country for 11 years... What we need is to work together, have a strong work ethic, be disciplined, and behave appropriately and responsibly.”
At the same time, in what could be seen as a message of appeasement to Bennett, Netanyahu said in the Likud faction meeting that he plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar, the illegal Bedouin enclave in the West Bank, which Bennett has repeatedly challenged the prime minister to raze in recent days.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon was the sole coalition partner who called for an early election, which he repeated in a Kulanu faction meeting.
“It’s hard to believe this will last. Prepare for an election in March,” Kulanu sources quoted Kahlon as saying in the meeting, which remained closed to the press.
Kahlon’s spokesman explained that the minister’s position had not changed, and he still believes a one-seat majority destabilizes the coalition and leaves it open to extortion and “anti-fiscal bills” from backbenchers. Kahlon still plans to meet with Netanyahu to discuss keeping the coalition together, but no date has been set for that meeting.
On Monday evening, Netanyahu’s spokesman said Kahlon had met with the prime minister and they agreed to continue discussing coalition stability. But a source close to Kahlon called the statement “nonsense,” saying that the meeting involved many people and was about economic matters, not politics.
In the Knesset, Bennett said: “If the prime minister is serious in his intentions, I am saying now: We are removing all political demands and standing here to help Israel win again. It’s better that Netanyahu beat me in politics than [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh beat Israel on the battlefield.”
The Bayit Yehudi leader made his remarks in response to Netanyahu’s statement the night before, that holding an election now would be irresponsible and a result of petty politics, vowing that he is protecting Israel’s security and has a plan of action against Hamas.
Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked backed down after a week in which the Knesset seemed headed for an election, with Avigdor Liberman resigning from the Defense Ministry
and pulling Yisrael Beytenu from the coalition, and Bennett immediately demanding to replace him. Netanyahu said that there is no need for an election, but Kahlon called for an election to take place as soon as possible. Interior Minister Arye Deri and Bennett joined the call, but Deri retreated from his remarks on Sunday, and on Monday, Bennett did as well.
However, Bennett did express some doubts about Netanyahu’s true intentions. The prime minister repeatedly warned of a “sensitive security situation” that made this an especially bad time for an early election, but Bennett said: “There’s no apocalypse, there are enemies. We have always had enemies.”
The problem, Bennett argued, lies in Israel.
“Israel stopped winning... We set limit after limit... Soldiers are more scared of Army lawyers than [Hamas commander] Yihya Sinwar. We went from defeating enemies to containing them... What the prime minister calls responsibility, our enemies see as hesitation. The ship called Israel sailed in a bad direction in the last decade. What’s worse is that we started to think that there is no solution for terrorism,” Bennett said.
“When Israel wants to win, we can win,” he added.
Bennett mentioned that he consulted a special adviser before deciding to stay in the government: Prof. Robert Aumann, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory.
During coalition negotiations in 2015, Aumann gave Bennett advice that landed Shaked the Justice Ministry; now Aumann has advised him not to resign. “He told me that even though according to game theory, continuing to push to be defense minister makes the most sense, the country should come first,” Bennett said.
Shaked ripped Netanyahu in her speech, implying that he put personal vendettas before politics.
“It’s no secret that Netanyahu didn’t want us in his government, even though we thought we were his natural ideological partners,” she recounted. “We thought natural partners are meant to work together to promote ideological aims. We were wrong.”
Shaked also pointed out that Netanyahu promised Bennett the defense portfolio before the 2015 election, and backed down from that when Bayit Yehudi received fewer seats than polls had predicted.
As for the decision not to resign, Shaked said although it may hurt them personally, they will do what is right for the country.
“Sorry to disappoint, but we are public servants with responsibility. We will not run away from it. Bennett will make sure we win and our enemies fear us again,” she said.
Liberman responded to Bennett and Shaked on Twitter: “Now we know why Israel lost its deterrence.”
Sources in the United Task Force for the Land of Israel, which organized a mass rally before the 2015 election, said they had contacted prominent religious-Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Chaim Druckman and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, to ask Bennett and Shaked to back down from their ultimatum. They posited that those rabbis played an instrumental role in remaining in the coalition.
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