Netanyahu Coalition Chaos Deepens As Israeli Lawmaker Debate Early Elections


Israeli ministers approved on Monday a controversial bill to exempt ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military service in an effort to save Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and avoid early elections.

Earlier on Monday, the government's Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted in favor of the bill following overnight talks between Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners for an agreed version of the bill.

Separately and perhaps equally as important, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposes the conscription bill and wants to see ultra-Orthodox men serve in the military like their secular counterparts.

The political crisis comes as Netanyahu is battling a series of corruption allegations.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he wants the coalition to last its entire term, which ends in November 2019, but some coalition members suspect him of allowing a "fake" crisis to worsen to give him the option of forcing elections.

He has signalled he could quit if the conscription bill is given final approval, but also held out the possibility of a compromise on that if a new bill is crafted that the defence establishment accepts.

Netanyahu could call for early elections, both as a way to shore up his narrow coalition and affirm his public standing in the face of multiple corruption charges.

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Coalition chiefs on Tuesday evening hailed the compromise deal achieved at the last minute which seems to have solved a coalition crisis that had nearly dismantled the government, with Netanyahu taking credit for the agreement.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, in turn, said he will pull his party (Kulanu) from the coalition if the budget fails to pass this week.

However, the secularist right-wing partners object to such a bill, saying the ultra-Orthodox should "share the burden" of military service.

Lieberman vowed on Tuesday that his Yisrael Beitenu party would "vote as one against the bill" as it stands now.

Should he follow through and leave the government, Netanyahu would be left with the razor-thin 61-member coalition it had before Lieberman came on board in May 2016. "But we're not there yet", Netanyahu said later on Monday.

The inability of Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu to coexist with the ultra-Orthodox, however, will remain a major obstacle to a far-right coalition surviving, unless such parties gain enough seats to push Lieberman into the opposition, or Netanyahu is able to court one of the centrist parties to replace the religious ones.

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