Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government appears to have survived a major political crisis after one of his coalition partners backed down from threats to bring down the government and trigger early elections.
The Israeli government looked to be on the brink of collapse Monday morning after Mr Netanyahu refused demands from the Jewish Home party to give them control of the defence ministry.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, called a press conference where he was widely expected to announce he was resigning from the cabinet and bringing down the government.
Instead, Mr Bennett seemed to blink in his standoff with the prime minister. He said he would stay in the government despite Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint him defence minister.
Mr Netanyahu took the defence minister’s post for himself, meaning he is currently serving as Israel’s prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister and health minister.
In a speech at the defence ministry on Monday night, Mr Netanyahu said it would be “irresponsible” to bring down the government in the midst of a sensitive security situation and seemed to indicate a more hawkish approach towards Hamas in Gaza.
Mr Bennett, who has fiercely criticised Mr Netanyahu for not doing more to confront Hamas, said he had decided to step back from forcing elections after watching the prime minister’s speech.
“If the prime minister is serious in his intention, and I wish to believe his words yesterday, then I’m saying today: ‘We’re taking away all political demands and we’re going to help you in this huge mission to make sure that Israel will go back to prevailing.’”
Mr Bennett’s announcement seemed to be an abrupt about face from the Jewish Home’s position on Friday afternoon, when the party said there was “no possibility of continuing the current government” and called for early elections.
Mr Bennett seemed to acknowledge that he had lost face after Mr Netanyahu called his bluff but said his decision was in the best interests of Israel.
“I suppose that I will pay a political price in the next few hours or days. Never mind, you win some you lose some. It’s preferable that the prime minister win me over in a political battle than [the leader of Hamas] will prevail over the state of Israel.”
Bennett is not resigning. he's giving Netnayahu another chance— Raoul Wootliff (@RaoulWootliff) November 19, 2018
Mr Bennett’s decision makes it less likely that the government will fall immediately and that Israel will head to early elections.
But Mr Netanyahu is still leading a fragile coalition with only 61 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament. It could still collapse over other political issues in the coming weeks.
Mr Netanyahu must call elections by November 2019. Israeli governments serve four-year terms but the country’s fractious coalition system means they rarely last more than three years.
The current government was formed after elections in 2015 and is already one of the longest-lasting governments in Israeli history.
Mr Netanyahu himself looks on course to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. If he remains in office until next summer he will overtake David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister.