JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s prime minister held emergency negotiations with key coalition partners on Sunday in hopes of averting a crisis that threatened to plunge the country into early elections.
The political tremor came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling a slew of corruption allegations over accepting gifts from billionaire friends and claims that he unlawfully engineered favourable media coverage for himself and his family.
The country’s attorney general is currently examining whether to indict Netanyahu in two separate cases. But Netanyahu has seen his fortunes improve in recent polls, with his base appearing to rally behind him amid the mounting graft accusations. The long-serving ruler could hope for a successful run in early elections as way to cement his political legitimacy in the face of the scandals.
Members of Netanyahu’s government had been quarrelling over whether to extend military draft exemptions afforded to ultra-Orthodox men. His religious partners say they will not vote for the 2019 budget without the draft exemptions, while a key secular partner vowed to bolt the coalition if the budget was not passed soon.
A letter Sunday by the religious lawmakers’ Council of Torah Sages, a policy-making body, rejected a compromise offer, saying there was no change in the religious party’s stance and prompting the meetings between Netanyahu and his partners.
Israeli media reported that elections could be held as early as June, if a motion to dissolve Israel’s Parliament is tabled this week.
A deal to save the government can still be achieved, but coalition partners were digging in their heels and blaming each other for the current crisis. Netanyahu took much of the fire.
“If the prime minister will decide to take the whole country to personal elections that will cost billions, that will paralyse the market, then that’s really serious and the public will settle accounts with him,” coalition partner and Education Minister Naftali Bennett told Israeli Army Radio.
Israeli police recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases and his close associates were implicated in another case.
Netanyahu vehemently denied wrongdoing in all of the cases, saying he is the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt by an overaggressive police force and a hostile media aimed at toppling him.