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Is Benjamin Netanyahu set to call early elections in Israel?

The Israeli PM must choose if he wants to fix the latest coalition crisis

    Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at the United Nations on Thursday
    Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at the United Nations on Thursday (Photo: Flash90)

    When Benjamin Netanyahu returns home to Israel on Friday, he must choose whether to fix the latest crisis in his coalition or risk an early election.

    Coalition party leaders insist the crisis — which intensified during his weeklong trip to the United States — can be resolved, but Mr Netanyahu himself is undecided. Elections could be held at the end of June.

    The crisis was triggered last week by United Torah Judaism’s deputy health minister, Yaakov Litzman, who demanded that the coalition pass a new law confirming yeshiva students’ military service can be deferred.

    UTJ members are now insisting that the Knesset passes the bill before it votes on the 2019 state budget.

    But the bill does not have a clear majority of support within the coalition and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who leads the centrist Kulanu party, has issued an ultimatum of his own: he will resign if the budget is not passed by Pesach, in three weeks.

    Despite the tough talk, none of Likud’s coalition partners is interested in early elections. Each have significant positions of power and no guarantee of retaining them.

    “The party leaders are interested in preventing an election campaign that will waste billions,” said Education Minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett on Wednesday.

    Moshe Gafni, from the UTJ, struck a different note: “The crisis is solvable, if there is a will to solve it. I don’t know whether there is a will.”

    Mr Gafni was referring to the Prime Minister who, despite repeated assurances in recent weeks that the government would complete its entire term until November 2019, now seems to be wavering.

    “Likud’s polling is showing now a surge of support for Bibi,” one influential Likud member close to Mr Netanyahu said. “That’s a powerful temptation to take advantage of the crisis and hold snap elections. It would renew Bibi’s mandate.”

    Many Likudniks believe that if the Prime Minister wins a fifth election before Israel’s attorney general can decide on possible criminal indictments against him, it would serve as “a mandate from the public” and make it harder to indict him.

    But the polls reflect the current situation where Mr Netanyahu is broadcasting a confident “business as usual” message. The public mood may change in an election in which the main issues in the campaign will be his integrity and the unpopular issue of exemptions for Charedi yeshiva students.

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