Netanyahu in crucial talks in bid to avoid early polls

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd right), Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (1st left) and finance minister Moshe Kahlon (2nd left) attend a Cabinet meeting in occupied Jerusalem, Sunday. — AFP

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted calls for snap polls Sunday, saying elections now would be “unnecessary and wrong”, ahead of what he called last-ditch talks to hold his embattled coalition together.

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition was thrown into crisis Wednesday after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation over a controversial Gaza ceasefire deal, leading to speculation over whether early elections have become inevitable.

After Lieberman’s withdrawal along with his Yisrael Beitenu party, Netanyahu’s government was left clinging to a one-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Key coalition partners say that is unworkable.

Netanyahu, who has sought to delay calling elections, made his case at the start of a Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

“In a period of security sensitivity, it’s unnecessary and wrong to go to elections,” Netanyahu said. He noted past instances when right-wing governments had called elections that did not turn out as they had hoped.

“We need to do whatever we can to avoid such mistakes,” he said.

Elections are not due until November 2019.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the far-right Jewish Home party, which holds eight seats in parliament, has demanded the defense portfolio as a way of keeping the government together.

Netanyahu says he will take it over at least temporarily rather than hand the key ministry to one of his main right-wing rivals, though a last-minute deal could not be ruled out.

On Saturday, Bennett told Israeli television that Lieberman had “collapsed the government”.

“There is no more government and we are heading towards elections,” he said. “There is no other alternative.”

Bennett declined to comment to journalists when entering Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, but Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of his Jewish Home party said in a statement that making him defense minister was “the only justification” to keep the government together.

Netanyahu met Bennett on Friday, but conflicting reports emerged from their discussions.

A source close to Bennett said the two had agreed that “it would be senseless to continue” with the same coalition. “They will set a date for elections when they meet with the (other) coalition partners on Sunday,” the source said.

Within minutes, a statement from Netanyahu’s Likud said that was wrong. — AFP