Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, pauses during a news conference at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium.(Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg)

Netanyahu Appeals to Keep Coalition Intact, Citing Security

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is facing one of the most complex security challenges since its founding and can’t afford to go to early elections, making a last appeal to keep his tottering government intact.

In a speech timed to coincide with primetime news broadcasts on Sunday, Netanyahu stressed his long security background as he made the case for why he would keep the defense portfolio in his own hands, after the defense minister’s resignation last week brought his government to the brink of collapse. The appeal appeared aimed at Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has threatened to withdraw his eight person Jewish Home party -- toppling the coalition -- if he’s not put in charge of defense.

Netanyahu Appeals to Keep Coalition Intact, Citing Security

“We are in one of the most complicated security situations ever, and in a situation like that you don’t overthrow a government, you don’t go to elections,” Netanyahu said, referring to challenges from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and Iran and Hezbollah in the north. “It’s irresponsible.”

Netanyahu came to the news conference from a meeting with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who has urged him to go to early elections. Earlier in the day, Netanyahu announced a multimillion dollar program benefiting security and police veterans -- something that required an across-the-board cut from other ministries, and was seen as bolstering the finance minister’s popularity.

Coalition Chaos

The crisis was triggered Nov. 14 when Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman quit and pulled his Yisrael Beitenu party’s five legislators out of the government, saying it wasn’t responding forcefully enough to rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza. That left Netanyahu with the support of just 61 members of the 120-seat parliament.

Netanyahu, a public relations master, has managed to paint himself as the mature adult in the room amid bickering children, said Mitchell Barak, a public opinion expert who served as an adviser to Netanyahu in the 1990s. Commentators noted that Netanyahu’s plea against early elections sounded like a campaign stump speech, as he reeled off a list of his security economic and diplomatic accomplishments.

“He made it look like he’s playing geopolitical chess and they’re playing Israeli checkers,” Barak said.

A spokesman for Bennett said he would make a statement Monday morning. Commentators said he might well announce he’s pulling his party out of the government.

Elections currently are slated for November 2019, but no Israeli coalition in the past 30 years has served out its term. The current one, formed in 2015, is one of the longest-lasting. Israeli commentators predicted elections would be advanced to March.

Polls suggest a new vote wouldn’t produce a significantly changed parliament. According to a Hadashot News poll Saturday, Netanyahu’s Likud would remain the dominant party if elections were held today, with its representation stable at 30 seats; Bennett’s Jewish Home party would rise slightly to 10 seats and Kahlon’s Kulanu would fall from 10 seats to eight. Bennett and Kahlon both said they expect elections to produce another conservative government under Netanyahu.

Election Genie

However, such calculations have proven wrong in the past once the election genie is out of the bottle. In recent days Netanyahu has recalled how, in 1992, hardliners toppled a Likud-led government, expecting to further strengthen their hold; instead, the Labor Party swept to power under Yitzhak Rabin and signed a peace accord with the Palestinians, what Netanyahu called the “Oslo disaster.”

Labor today is part of the Zionist Union faction, which would fall from 24 seats to 12 in new elections, according to the Hadashot News poll. The big winner would be Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, which would rise to 18 seats from 11.

Corruption Probes

There have been months of speculation about whether Netanyahu would disband an unruly government and seek a popular mandate with corruption allegations hanging over his head.

A two-year-old probe against the prime minister is moving toward conclusion, with Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit due to decide whether to indict him in multiple cases. Some commentators have reasoned that if the prime minister goes to early elections and wins big, Mandelblit might hesitate to take action against him.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in the cases against him, contending he’s the victim of a leftist cabal that wants to bring down his conservative government. He’s now also facing criticism from residents of southern Israel, who feel the government has not done enough to neutralize rocket fire and other threats from the Gaza Strip.

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