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Netanyahu’s main coalition partner pushes for early elections in Israel

Netanyahu’s main coalition partner pushes for early elections in Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in 2016. (Abir Sultan / Associated Press)

The Israeli government teetered on the verge of collapse Friday after a second key right-wing minister called for early elections in protest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the long-running crisis with Hamas, the Islamist militia that governs the Gaza Strip.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett echoed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's demand two days earlier, made when he resigned to protest a cease-fire with Hamas. With Netanyahu’s parliamentary majority down to a single vote, there are few signs that the disarray in his coalition will resolve itself.

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After meeting with Netanyahu on Friday, the first day of the Israeli weekend, Bennett stopped short of resigning but said that the only way forward is “to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government.”

Bennett had demanded the coveted ministry from which Lieberman resigned, saying he would abandon the government if he were denied the post.

But people close to the prime minister have said he intends to take on the responsibilities himself. He was left with little choice after one of the few Cabinet moderates, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, told Netanyahu that he would withdraw from the government if Bennett were awarded the defense portfolio.

While Bennett declared that the date for a snap election would be decided Sunday, Netanyahu raced to hold a series of last-ditch calls with his remaining ministers, contending, according to a statement from his office, that “there is no reason to go to elections” and that he would make “every effort to preserve the right-wing government.”

Even if successful, Netanyahu appeared to be postponing the inevitable.

The departure of Yisrael Beiteinu, Lieberman’s hard-line nationalist party, and Jewish Home, Bennett’s hard-line pro-settlement party, leave Netanyahu exposed to increasingly loud complaints that he has lost the claim to his longtime nickname, “Mr. Security.”

Friday’s political tumult concluded a week that began with a botched Israeli army special operations raid into Gaza that prompted Netanyahu to quickly return to Israel from a summit meeting in Paris.

The operation, which resulted in the death of a senior Israeli military officer, sparked a two-day military confrontation between Israel and Hamas that ended with an inconclusive truce that has proved to be massively unpopular among Israelis.

The notion that Netanyahu capitulated to terrorism by agreeing to the cease-fire, as Lieberman accused in his harsh resignation announcement, has been echoed in growing public protests.

Residents of Israel’s south, notably from Sderot, a city that has long been a bastion of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, have burned tires and blocked major highways to protest a “humiliating” deal they believe has not materially improved their exposure to Hamas rockets and missiles that have been launched from Gaza at their communities for years.

The political and social revolt could not have erupted at a more challenging time for Netanyahu, who faces a likely indictment resulting from three criminal investigations in which police have recommended he be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, blaming the criminal inquiries on a left-wing conspiracy.

On Friday, Netanyahu described the endurance of his government in stark, existential terms, pleading with his Cabinet ministers “not to repeat the historical mistake of 1992 when the right-wing government was toppled, the left came into power and brought the Oslo disaster to the state of Israel,” an allusion to the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But after Kahlon told Netanyahu he would quit the government if Bennett were chosen to lead the Defense Ministry, the prime minister was left with nowhere to turn for support.

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In an interview with Israeli television, Hanan Kristal, a political analyst, dismissed the prime minister’s warnings about the grim outcome that would follow “overthrowing a right-wing government” as “only a Netanyahu gimmick.”

“It’s every man for himself now,” Kristal said.

Predicting elections will come in March, Kristal said, “Netanyahu wants to push the date back as far as possible and run as a full-time prime minister, not some lame duck.”

Most Israeli observers believe negotiations over the date for elections, currently scheduled for November 2019, will begin in earnest Sunday.

Recent municipal elections, in which several long-term mayors were overthrown, augur a tumultuous electoral campaign ahead.

“Israelis want change and are going to vote for change,” political analyst Ronit Vered predicted Friday, despite relatively cheery snap polls that showed a comfortable cushion of support for Netanyahu.

“The issue in the coming election will be democracy and clean government,” she said.

3:10 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with Los Angeles Times reporting.

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