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Netanyahu battles to save weakened ruling coalition

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on July 23, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was battling to keep his government afloat on Friday after Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit over a ceasefire deal for Gaza.

Left with a single seat majority in parliament after the walkout by Lieberman and his hawkish Yisrael Beitenu party, most media saw little way for Netanyahu to avoid calling a snap general election.

The veteran prime minister was expected to hold crunch talks later on Friday with his other main right-wing rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose religious nationalist Jewish Home party has threatened to quit unless he is given Lieberman’s job.

The Gaza ceasefire, which ended the worst flare-up between Israel and the territory’s Islamist rulers Hamas since a 2014 war, faced its first major test later on Friday as Palestinian demonstrators were expected to gather along the border for mass protests that have triggered deadly violence in previous weeks.

The deal has already drawn heavy criticism, however, in Israeli communities near the border that faced barrages of rockets earlier this week.

Hundreds joined a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Thursday despite a promise from Netanyahu of more public money for emergency services.

Pro-Netanyahu freesheet Yisrael Hayom daily predicted that the prime minister would do all he could to avoid a general election while his hard-won security credentials were at issue.

“Holding elections with the fiasco in Gaza in the background cracks the image of the ultimate leader that he has built over the course of years,” it said.

“The chances of stopping this speeding train appear impossible, but Netanyahu is still trying.”

The eight lawmakers of Bennett’s far-right Jewish Home party are not the only threat to Netaynahu’s razor-thin parliamentary majority.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose centre-right Kulanu party hold 10 seats, has reportedly told Netanyahu that a snap election is necessary to provide a stable government to keep the economy on track.

But Yisrael Hayom said Bennett was key to efforts to avoid an early election and could yet prove Netanyahu’s political salvation.

“Naftali Bennett as defence minister and Netanyahu as prime minister could together project stability and embark on a coordinated offensive against anyone who gets in the way,” it said.

In a speech on Thursday, Bennett did not reiterate the resignation threat but made his case for why he should get the defence post.

“The most dangerous thing for the state of Israel is that we begin to think that there is no solution to terrorism, to terrorists, to missiles,” he said.

“There is a solution. When Israel wants to win, we will win.”

There were no official details of when or where Bennett would meet Netanyahu on Friday or what public statements if any would be made.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening calling for tougher action against Hamas which has portrayed the ceasefire and Lieberman’s resignation as a victory.

Netanyahu — flanked by Kahlon, Interior Minister Arie Deri and army top brass — met with the leaders of Israeli border communities.

He briefed them on military efforts to quell Hamas attacks and also announced a 500 million shekel ($139 million, 119 million euro) two-year package to improve emergency medical and social services, a government statement said.

With a major domestic political battle on his hands, Netanyahu cancelled a planned two-day visit to Austria next week for a conference on anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.

There has long been speculation that Netanyahu would call a general election before its scheduled date of November 2019.

Police have recommended he be charged in two separate corruption cases and the attorney general is expected to announce in the coming months whether to put him on trial.

Analysts say the prime minister would be better positioned to fight any charges with a fresh mandate from the voters.

But he would not have chosen to go the polls with voters’ attention focused on the Gaza ceasefire and his rivals’ efforts to outbid his security credentials.

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