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How Benjamin Netanyahu lost heart for a snap election

The weakened PM preferred to take credit for fixing the latest coalition crisis rather than escalating it

    Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday in the Knesset, where he hailed a deal that averted early elections in June
    Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday in the Knesset, where he hailed a deal that averted early elections in June (Photo: Flash90)

    It marked the end of a prolonged coalition crisis during which Israel seemed on the brink of a snap election.

    On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in the Knesset that he had “promised to make a supreme effort to prevent elections and sustain the best government, led by me, that is achieving enormous things for Israel. I have fulfilled my promise.”

    Mr Netanyahu’s words sounded a bit hollow to his coalition colleagues, who had been surprised at his sluggishness in addressing the latest crisis to hit his government.

    They were approached by prime ministerial aides over the past week trying to build a majority for a snap election.

    The crisis began a fortnight ago, when Rabbi Yaacov Alter, one of the most influential rabbis directing the Strictly Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, demanded that the coalition approve a new bill regulating how yeshiva students defer their military service.

    The bill should be passed before the 2019 state budget, he insisted.

    The rabbi’s ultimatum angered both Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, anxious to pass the budget before the current Knesset term ends, and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wanted any new legislation regarding military service to be cleared by his ministry first.

    As coalition crises go, this should have been one well within Mr Netanyahu’s abilities to defuse quickly — especially given that none of his coalition partners are interested in rushing for elections.

    But the Prime Minister barely took the time to send conciliatory messages last week while he was in the United States.

    In fact, he seemed happy enough to conclude that the differences were irreconcilable, leading the coalition partners to believe he wanted a snap election in June all along.

    That is why they went behind his back to find a compromise among themselves.

    Mr Netanyahu’s interest in having an early election is clear: the attorney general is unlikely by voting-day to have decided on whether to indict him on corruption charges, as recommended by the police, .

    His Likud party is doing well in opinion polls and  Mr Netanyahu hoped that a renewed mandate would allow him to remain in office even if he is charged in court.

    But by refusing him the votes for an early election, the coalition partners have shown the Prime Minister that he is weakened by the allegations.

    Three years ago, in 2015, Mr Netanyahu was able to dictate the timing and terms of that year’s early election.

    This time, he was forced to choose between keeping the coalition together or agreeing to a long election campaign in which he would have less influence to frame the issues.

    He preferred to take credit for resolving the crisis rather than escalating it.

    Now, with the budget expected to pass its final votes by the end of the week, the coalition is once more at peace.

    Mr Netanyahu’s fate rests again with the attorney general.

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