By Jonathan Ferziger
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a deal with feuding coalition partners Tuesday that wards off the prospect of early elections amid a growing corruption scandal.
The agreement came after a day of see-sawing negotiations and Netanyahu’s pledge to make a “supreme effort” to avert the collapse of his government more than a year before the end of its term. It postpones a showdown between opposing party leaders on whether to restore draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men and ensures that the government will have the votes to pass its 2019 budget.
“I promised and I delivered,” Netanyahu said in a brief speech to parliament after the agreement was arranged.
While the near collapse of the government was blamed on a dispute over the draft, opponents accused Netanyahu of orchestrating the impasse to trigger an election that could bolster his standing before a possible indictment on influence-peddling charges.
A new poll showed Netanyahu, Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, would emerge stronger from a vote despite the corruption scandal, winning three times as much support as his closest challenger.
“If there are elections, we will run and we will win,” Netanyahu said Monday from the Knesset podium, taunting opposition leaders as being afraid to face voters.
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas control 13 parliamentary seats, and Netanyahu would lose his majority in the 120-member Knesset if they withdrew from the government. A pullout by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party would have left Netanyahu’s government with a one-seat margin, a situation Netayahu had said would be untenable to govern.
In the end, Liberman’s party members were given the freedom to vote against the legislation on draft exemptions without being expelled from the coalition, the defense minister said in an emailed statement.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog and other party leaders have been calling on Netanyahu to resign since police recommended Feb. 13 that he be indicted on bribery and fraud charges in two influence-peddling cases. Police are still investigating a third case in which several former close aides have agreed to testify against him. Netanyahu says he’s the innocent victim of a witch hunt by left-wing opponents and the media.
If Netanyahu goes to trial he could be the second Israeli premier in a row convicted of corruption. His predecessor Ehud Olmert was released from prison last year after serving 16 months of a 27-month sentence. Olmert stepped down to battle the charges.