November 19, 2018 / 9:31 AM / 24 days ago

Netanyahu avoids early elections for now after minister's about-face

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday avoided an early election for now after a coalition partner backed away from toppling a government hanging on to power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s U-turn surprised many pundits who had predicted the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party would quit in protest after Netanyahu rejected his demand to be named defense minister and assumed the post himself.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been making last-ditch efforts to prevent the collapse of the government, which has a majority of just one seat in parliament since Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense chief last week.

Outflanking Netanyahu on the right, Lieberman, an ultranationalist, lashed out in his resignation announcement at the government’s acceptance of a ceasefire with Gaza’s dominant armed group, Hamas, amid a surge in cross-border violence

“You win some, you lose some,” Bennett said in a televised address, shrugging off Netanyahu’s rejection of his bid for the defense post, long regarded in Israel as its second most important cabinet portfolio.

Had Bennett pulled his party out of the weakened coalition, as Jewish Home officials had threatened, Netanyahu would have been left with a minority government, making an election likely ahead of a national ballot that is not due until November 2019.

Bennett said Jewish Home party was withdrawing all its political demands and would stand by the four-term prime minister.

SECURITY CHALLENGES

In a speech late on Sunday appealing to coalition partners to remain loyal, Netanyahu cited unspecified security challenges ahead and hinted at future action by Israel against its enemies.

He repeated that theme in remarks to parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, in which he said that “together we can surmount any challenge and ensure Israel’s security”.

Such comments have left political and military affairs commentators in Israel pondering whether Netanyahu is indeed planning new military action, either in Gaza or possibly against Hezbollah guerrilla missile sites in Lebanon, or engaging in political spin that would appeal to his right-wing voter base.

An opinion poll last week suggested that Israelis, including those living outside border areas that were struck by more than 400 rockets from Gaza during the flareup, were unhappy with Netanyahu over the continued threat from the Israeli-blockaded territory.

It was a rare dip in popularity for a leader who has been on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

“National security is beyond politics,” Netanyahu said in his speech on Sunday. “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.”

In his own address, Bennett said he wants to believe that Netanyahu was serious about the threats facing Israel.

If so, he said, “I say here to the prime minister: “We are withdrawing all our political demands and we will stand by you in this mighty task, so that Israel starts winning again.”

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Richard Balmforth

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