November 17, 2018 / 5:09 PM / a month ago

Israel's Netanyahu says early election must be avoided

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday he wanted his government to fulfil its term, putting the onus of triggering an expected early election onto a coalition partner.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, at his gravesite in Sde Boker, Israel November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Netanyahu has faced calls from his coalition members to hold a snap election after the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday.

Lieberman quit over what he described as the government’s too-soft policy on an upsurge of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, leaving the government with a razor-thin majority.

Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, was the first coalition partner to call for an early election after meeting Netanyahu on Thursday.

Kahlon’s calls were echoed by Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and by members of the nationalist Jewish Home whose head, Naftali Bennett, asked to succeed Lieberman as defence chief but was turned down by Netanyahu on Friday.

The loss of Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu faction leaves Netanyahu with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament. Each of the remaining government factions now has the power to effectively dissolve the coalition.

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party said that he will meet Kahlon on Sunday “in a last attempt to convince him not to bring down the government.”

“If the Kulanu faction doesn’t bring the government down - there is a government,” Netanyahu said on Twitter. “All Likud members want to keep serving the country for another whole year until the end of the term in November 2019.”

“That kind of spin doesn’t work on me,” Kahlon said in response on Hadashot television news. “It’s impossible to run a coalition with sixty-one Knesset members.

Analysts see an early election as a done deal, with Netanyahu and ministers trying to pin responsibility for bringing the government down on each other so as not to lose favour with their right-wing voter base.

“We’re heading for an election - there is no government,” Bennett told Israel’s Meet the Press on Saturday. “There’s a blame-game being fought on who will be the one to pronounce it dead.”

Netanyahu is under investigation in a series of corruption cases, and there has been speculation that he may bring the ballot forward to win a renewed mandate while Israel’s attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

Both Lieberman and Bennett compete with Netanyahu’s Likud for right-wing voters and have spoken in favour of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

A poll published on Wednesday by Hadashot showed Likud falling by one seat from 30 to 29 after months of polls that have shown it gaining power. Only 17 percent of respondents were happy with Netanyahu’s Gaza policy.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Ros Russell

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