Israel's ruling coalition looks likely to crumble as key ministers veto the appointment of Naftali Bennett as defence minister.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly told a meeting of key cabinet ministers yesterday that he cannot hold the coalition together in the face of increasing opposition to Bennett's demand to be handed the defence portfolio in return for keeping his Jewish Home party in the coalition.
The deadlock was revealed by Israel's Channel 10 news, which reported that Netanyahu told ministers that Bennett's ultimatum was "the main stumbling block to keeping the coalition together". The Israeli news channel also reported that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – who is also head of the Kulanu party – is vetoing Bennett's appointment and continuing to push for early elections.
Netanyahu is due to meet Bennett again today for further discussions, according to the Times of Israel, but the Israeli daily predicts that "with Kahlon […] and others including the Shas party pushing for an election, there's little expectation that the meeting will avert an early return to the polls". If this is indeed the case, it is expected elections will be held between March and May 2019.
Close confidants of Netanyahu have also added to the speculation that elections will be called. Speaking to an Israeli radio station today, Likud MK and Minister of Regional Coordination Tzachi Hanegbi said that: "We're going to elections, we just have to set the date […] There are considerations here and there. In any case, the term of office of this government will not be long."
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin echoed Hanegbi's analysis, explaining that: "All the coalition partners will have to make a decision early this week if they want to move ahead of the elections," Arutz Sheva reported. "Bennett's desire to serve in one role or another is legitimate, but the discourse should be of dialogue and not dictating dictates," Levin added.
Bennett's threat to withdraw the Jewish Home party from the ruling coalition unless he is handed the defence portfolio has sparked a political crisis in Israel and significantly weakened Netanyahu's capability of holding off on elections until late 2019 – the latest they can be held.
The Netanyahu government currently holds a 66-seat majority in the 120 member Knesset. Of those 66, eight seats are held by Jewish Home MKs, meaning that if the party were to withdraw the coalition would no longer hold a majority with which to govern. Given that the government faces an impending vote on the controversial Haredi draft law in just over two weeks' time, Netanyahu will be keen to avoid a Jewish Home walk-out.
Today it emerged that Jewish Home had intended to withdraw from the coalition immediately after a ceasefire was imposed with Gaza, but was beaten to its announcement by the shock resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday. These developments led the party to reconsider and push for Bennett to replace Lieberman as head of the defence portfolio.