Netanyahu Works to Stabilize Government Amid Calls for Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a trip to Europe and tried Thursday to keep his crumbling government together, as at least two coalition partners advised him to call early elections after his defense minister quit.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu party holds 10 of parliament’s 120 seats, urged Netanyahu to hold an early vote for the sake of the economy, Ynet reported. Interior Minister Arye Deri, leader of the seven-seat Shas party, also advised an early vote, “for the good of the country,” the website said. Elections are currently scheduled for November 2019, but few Israeli governments survive for a full term.

The coalition was thrown into turmoil Wednesday when Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned and pulled his Yisrael Beitenu party’s five legislators out of the government, saying Netanyahu wasn’t responding forcefully enough to rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza. His departure left the prime minister controlling just 61 Knesset seats, as he did before Liberman joined the government in May 2016.

The eight-seat Jewish Home party has threatened to pull out too unless its chairman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett -- a Netanyahu rival who also has accused the government of being soft on Gaza -- gets the defense portfolio. Netanyahu is due to meet with Bennett Friday, Israel media reported. He also will meet mayors of Gaza border towns who wanted the army to retaliate more forcefully for Hamas’s rocket barrage, the fiercest since the two sides fought a 2014 war.

Fierce Debate

Public debate on Netanyahu’s approach to Gaza continued to roil the country Thursday. Hundreds of angry border town residents shut down a main artery into Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was forced to apologize after he seemed to suggest there was a difference between targeting towns on the periphery and targeting Tel Aviv. Hanegbi said his comments had been misunderstood.

A Hadashot News poll Wednesday night showed that 74 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s restraint during the flare-up, while columnists in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper praised the prime minister for having avoided an unnecessary war.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party would remain the dominant party if elections were held today, winning 29 Knesset seats compared to its current 30, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 4.4 percent. The big winner would be Netanyahu’s centrist rival Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party would surge to 18 seats from 12, according to the poll.

Trip Nixed

Amid the political turmoil, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Netanyahu had canceled a planned trip to Austria, where he was to attend a conference on anti-Semitism and meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The visit to Vienna -- the first by an Israeli prime minister in more than 20 years -- would have preceded a meeting there of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Netanyahu was seen as instrumental in convincing U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of the international deal on Iran’s nuclear program earlier this year, and has urged the IAEA to do more to investigate Iran’s nuclear activities.

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