November 19, 2018 / 9:34 AM / a month ago

Israeli coalition crisis eases, making early election less likely

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition crisis eased on Monday when a coalition partner backed off a demand to be given the defence ministry, making an early election less likely.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s U-turn surprised many pundits, who had predicted the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party would opt to quit in protest. He said the party was withdrawing all its political demands and would stand by the prime minister.

“You win some, you lose some,” Bennett said in a televised address, shrugging off Netanyahu’s rejection of his bid.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been making last-ditch efforts to prevent the collapse of the government, which has had a majority of just one seat in parliament since Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defence chief last week.

Had Bennett withdrawn his party from the weakened coalition, Netanyahu - who has assumed the defence post himself - would have been left with a minority government, making a snap election likely.

Lieberman, an ultranationalist, lashed out in his resignation announcement against what he described as the government’s leniency towards Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, amid a surge in cross-border violence.

In a speech late on Sunday, Netanyahu urged coalition partners not to bring down the government, citing security challenges ahead and hinting at future action by Israel against its enemies.

An opinion poll last week suggested that Israelis were unhappy with the four-term prime minister over Gaza, causing a rare dip in his popularity ratings.

“We have an entire year until the election. We are in the midst of a campaign and you don’t pull out in the middle of a campaign or play politics. National security is beyond politics,” Netanyahu said in his speech on Sunday.

“I will not say this evening when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it.”

Bennett referred to Netanyahu’s address in saying that Jewish Home, which has eight of parliament’s 120 legislators, would remain in his coalition.

“If the prime minister is serious, and I want to believe his words last night, then I say here to the prime minister: We are withdrawing all our political demands and we will stand by you in this mighty task, so that Israel starts winning again.”

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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