By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A dispute within Israel’s governing coalition over military conscription of ultra-orthodox Jewish men stirred speculation on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to see a snap election to help him survive corruption investigations.
Right-wing and religious parties in the government are divided over the framing of a bill that would protect the exemption ultra-Orthodox men have traditionally enjoyed from compulsory military service. That has led to a series of urgent meetings between Netanyahu and his political partners.
After coalition talks on Sunday, Netanyahu’s office said cabinet ministers were waiting for ultra-Orthodox parties, which control 13 of the government’s 66 seats in the 120-member parliament, to present a revised formula for the legislation.
Secularist right-wing parties want the exemption lifted or at least the language changed. In the past the parties have compromised over the issue, but at least one coalition partner suggested Netanyahu was not invested in preventing the government’s collapse.
“It is a fake crisis that can be resolved. It all depends on Netanyahu,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party that holds eight seats, told Israel Radio.
“If you bring down a right-wing government and lead us to unnecessary elections for personal aims, you will lose us,” Bennett added on Twitter, apparently hinting at withdrawing future support for Netanyahu if the prime minister is indicted.
At least three police investigations revolving around bribery allegations threaten the four-term prime minister’s political survival. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a witch hunt.
At a meeting with ministers of his Likud party on Sunday, Netanyahu was quoted by Israeli media as saying he was working for a stable government that would serve out its term until a national election due in November 2019.
Writing in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, political commentator Yossi Verter spelled out a possible Netanyahu strategy.
“All the factors have converged to give the premier a one-time opportunity to go to an election and win, form a new government, and then, after he’s indicted, argue that the public made its choice knowing what the suspicions were, and therefore the accused can continue to manage his trial while also managing the country,” Verter wrote.
Police have already recommended Netanyahu be charged in two corruption cases. Final word on whether to indict him rests with the attorney-general, a decision that could be months away. Recent opinion polls show public support for Netanyahu is still strong.
(Editing by Peter Graff)