Netanyahu avoids Israeli snap polls for now

Jerusalem (AFP) - A key Israeli minister said Monday he will not quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government for now despite sharp disagreements, handing the premier a victory and potentially ending a crisis that has threatened to provoke snap elections.

The announcement by Education Minister Naftali Bennett was a dramatic climbdown from his Jewish Home party's earlier threat to leave the coalition if he was not named defence minister.

Netanyahu has refused to give the high-profile post to Bennett, one of his main political rivals, despite the coalition crisis threatening to topple his government following a controversial Gaza ceasefire.

Bennett, whose far-right party holds eight seats in parliament, said he would give Netanyahu time to correct course on a range of issues as he pushed for an even more hawkish approach toward the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's current coalition is already seen as the most right-wing in Israel's history.

"If the prime minister is serious in his intentions, and I want to believe his words from last night, I am saying here to the prime minister we are removing at this moment all of our political demands and will help you in the huge mission of making Israel win again," Bennett said in a statement to journalists broadcast live on television.

He acknowledged the backlash he may face for backing down from the earlier ultimatum.

"It's better that the prime minister beats me in a political battle than (Hamas leader Ismail) Haniya beats Israel," Bennett said in a parliamentary committee room packed with journalists.

Bennett's comments followed an impassioned address to the nation on Sunday night by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said he would retain the defence portfolio for now and seek to convince coalition partners to remain in the government.

He said calling early elections would be "irresponsible" due to what he described as a complicated security situation facing the country.

He did not explain why Israel's security concerns would be more complex now than at other times, saying he could not publicly describe in detail the sensitive moves being taken.

Netanyahu also defended his security credentials, seeking to hit back at criticism of last week's ceasefire that ended the worst escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 war.

On Monday at the parliament's foreign and defence committee, Netanyahu repeated some of those arguments, saying "we're in the midst of a battle that hasn't ended yet."

- 'Back to winning' -

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman's resignation last week over the ceasefire threw the government into crisis.

After Lieberman's withdrawal along with his Yisrael Beitenu party, Netanyahu's government was left clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament.

Key coalition partners had said that was unworkable even though elections are not due until November 2019, but Netanyahu has been in discussions aimed at staving off an early vote.

Bennett hit back at Netanyahu's argument that Israel was in an especially complicated security situation, saying the country has always faced threats and managed to overcome them.

At the same time, he accused Netanyahu of leading a defeatist defence policy.

"What's most dangerous to Israel is that we've begun thinking there's no solution to terror -- to terrorists, to rockets, that there's nothing to do," Bennett said.

"When Israel wants to win, we'll go back to winning."

Netanyahu has defended the ceasefire and his backers say he and his security chiefs are on the same page when it comes to Gaza.

Many analysts question the wisdom of starting another war in the Gaza Strip without a strategy for how it will end.

But Lieberman labelled the ceasefire "capitulating to terror" when he resigned on Wednesday and Bennett says he disagreed with it as well.

Israeli residents of southern communities hit by barrages of rockets from Gaza last week have also protested, calling for tough action against Hamas, with which Israel has fought three wars since 2008.

A poll published after the ceasefire found 74 percent of respondents were unhappy with Netanyahu's handling of the escalation with Gaza and its Islamist rulers Hamas, though it also showed his party would still easily win the most seats.

Many analysts believe Netanyahu would like to buy more time before heading toward elections to allow him to move on from the Gaza ceasefire.

A range of other issues on the agenda could also threaten to topple the government before November.

Shmuel Sandler, political studies professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said Gaza will nevertheless play an important role.

"If it quiets down and there's some movement forward to a (longer-term) ceasefire, then the government will hold together," he said. "If not, it will fall apart."


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