Israel’s Netanyahu clings to power as coalition talks loom

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced Israeli media headlines on Friday suggesting power is slipping from his grasp after an election in which he trails his main rival with nearly all votes counted.

The right-wing leader failed on Tuesday, for the second time in five months, to secure a clear election victory and the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-armed forces chief Benny Gantz rebuffed his calls to join a unity government on Thursday.

Near-final results released on Friday by the Knesset’s election committee showed Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31 seats, three less than it had before.

GRAPHIC: Seat projections in Israel’s election – https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2B21D9/ISRAEL-ELECTIONS.jpg

Israeli newspapers and commentators depicted the 69-year-old leader as in a weakened position, with headlines such as: “Himself Alone” and “Political Death Spasms”.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Sunday start consultations with the parties about choosing a leader to put together a coalition.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to see Israel’s coalition drama as an opportunity for his government in the occupied West Bank to announce election plans.

Abbas told reporters outside Norway’s parliament that he would issue a decree for elections across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem when he returns to the Palestinian Territories following the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Despite a long rift with Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, Abbas said his Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, would be ready to accept a Hamas victory “because Hamas is a part of our people, we cannot exclude Hamas. They have a right to vote and to nominate themselves.”

Some political analysts said Abbas was unlikely to follow through on his election pledge, pointing to difficulties holding a national vote across Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, each of which has a different ruling entity.

There have not been any national Palestinian elections for 13 years. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a 2006 parliamentary election, plunging Palestinian politics into a bitter power struggle from which it has not emerged.

PEACE PLAN

One uncertainty is the timing of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan, which was expected soon after Israel’s election, but could unsettle a weakened Netanyahu if released during complex coalition negotiations.

On Friday, Netanyahu met Trump’s outgoing Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, a chief architect of the plan.

Many political analysts are waiting to see how Netanyahu tries to prolong his political survival, not least to claim a public mandate in the face of possible corruption charges that prosecutors may bring within months. He denies wrongdoing, accusing his critics of mounting a witch-hunt.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex large swaths of the West Bank, territory Israel captured in a 1967 war where Palestinians seek a state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem. The move drew condemnation from world leaders as detrimental to achieving a lasting peace accord.

Gantz has urged redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek. He has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu and Gantz will now seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

Increased turnout by Israel’s 21-percent Arab minority saw the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition grouping win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping.

The religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. The full official results will be published next Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Newsmaker: The anti-Netanyahu? Ex-general Gantz poised for top office

By Rami Ayyub

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Benny Gantz has little of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldly polish or flair as a showy ideologue – and that may be exactly why so many weary Israelis want the ex-general in top office.

A towering and laid-back former military chief, Gantz appears to have edged out the conservative Netanyahu in a Tuesday election, but not enough to win a governing center-left majority in parliament led by his Blue and White party.

A weakened Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party also fell short of victory, called on Gantz, 60, on Thursday to join him a broad, unity government. Gantz insists he will not enter an alliance with Netanyahu.

Earlier, Netanyahu was wont to point out that Gantz is a political greenhorn whose foreign policy pedigree is a stint as defense attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington – a resume unlikely to impress world leaders like President Donald Trump.

Gantz casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopping short of any commitment to the statehood they seek.

Where Netanyahu envisages annexing the Jordan Valley, part of occupied West Bank land, Gantz has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the strategic corridor.

To his critics, that kind of haziness shows indecisiveness and lack of principle. Gantz, who was raised on a collective farm and spent some of his school years in a religious Jewish seminary, describes himself as having more grit than varnish.

“You know I’m not strong with words,” he told a Jerusalem conference earlier this month. “I say honestly – I’m not a politician. A leader? I hope that (I am that), yes.”

“ROLE MODEL”

Gantz, who is married with four children, has acknowledged his easy-going appeal, telling reporters on Wednesday that he aspired to enter a “good, desirable unity government, so the country can relax a little”.

But he has also shown steel. He launched his political career earlier this year with a bombastic ad campaign that claimed credit for hundreds of “terrorist” kills in Gaza – a reference to wars he oversaw against Hamas Islamists, and whose civilian Palestinian toll drew international condemnation.

Indeed, as Israelis voted on Tuesday, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six relatives to Israeli forces in Gaza in 2014 sought war crimes damages against Gantz at The Hague. Gantz fired back defiantly that Israel has “the most moral army in the world”.

But in making Blue and White Israel’s largest party in parliament – just edging past Likud, according to near-complete results – many Israelis evidently felt overtaxed by more than a decade of Netanyahu rule.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, faces possible indictment in three corruption cases in which he denies any wrongdoing. During his decade in power, internal divisions and diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians have deepened.

“When I look at Gantz, I see someone I can trust, who is honest and sincere. He is a role model,” Tami Golan, a 46-year-old Tel Aviv property manager, told Reuters.

“He gives me hope we can be united as a country,” the mother of two said.

Netanyahu has accused Gantz of being gunshy when it came to a potential military confrontation with arch-foe Iran. Gantz says that he prepared a plan for attacking Iranian nuclear sites but that it was Netanyahu who failed to green-light it.

As top general, Gantz says, he was guided by his late mother, a Holocaust survivor. While she supported Israel’s fight against Hamas, he recounted in later media interviews, she exhorted him to “keep the food coming in” to impoverished Gaza.

Among factors that could decide if Gantz forms the next government, assuming a partnership with Netanyahu does not materialize, is whether he gets a nod from a party list that represents Israel’s Arab minority.

While some Arab politicians have voiced misgivings about Gantz’s record in uniform, others have hinted they may grudgingly back him as an antidote to Netanyahu.

The Palestinians have not ruled Gantz out as peace partner.

“We do respect (the) democratic outcome of elections in Israel. Whoever will form the government – we are ready to sit with him or her to restart the negotiations,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said at a news conference in Oslo on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel’s Netanyahu fails to win majority in close election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in an election that produced a virtual tie between his right-wing bloc and a center-left grouping that would be led by former military chief Benny Gantz.

The outcome, according to almost complete results published on Wednesday, dealt a new blow to Israel’s longest-serving leader who was already weakened by the inability to put together an administration after an inconclusive election in April.

But with coalition-building again key to forming a government, it could be days or even weeks before it becomes clear whether the wily politician hailed by supporters as “King Bibi” has been dethroned after a decade in power.

With Israeli media reporting more than 90 percent of votes counted in Tuesday’s election, the bloc led by Netanyahu’s Likud party was more or less even with a likely grouping headed by Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.

A Likud-led bloc looked poised to control 55 of parliament’s 120 seats, with 56 going to a center-left alliance, numbers falling short of a majority government of 61 lawmakers.

A Likud spokesman said the leaders of right-wing factions met Netanyahu at the prime minister’s office on Wednesday and pledged to work with him to form the next government.

The ballot’s wildcard, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, emerged as a likely kingmaker as head of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, projected to capture nine seats.

Lieberman has been pushing for a unity government comprised of the biggest parties. He declined to back Netanyahu’s bid to form a narrow right-wing and religious coalition after the April election, bringing about Tuesday’s unprecedented repeat vote.

Netanyahu, who made his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump a main selling point in his campaign, has made no claim of victory or concession of defeat, and he planned to address Likud party legislators later in the day.

Some of the party’s leaders issued nearly identical statements expressing their allegiance to Netanyahu.

“He remains party chairman and its candidate to continue as prime minister,” said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud.

Netanyahu, 69, appeared fatigued and hoarse in a 3 a.m. election night speech to party faithful earlier on Wednesday in which he said he intended to form a “Zionist government”, without Arab parties that could lend support to Gantz.

CONSULTATIONS

Once the last votes are tallied, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will consult with leaders of parties that won parliamentary representation about whom to tap to try to form a government. The nominee would then have up to 42 days to do so.

Gantz has not ruled out a unity administration with Likud but has said Blue and White would not join such a government if it included Netanyahu, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.

In a further complication, Lieberman has rejected any alliance that includes ultra-Orthodox parties – Netanyahu’s traditional partners.

Lieberman, a Jewish settler and immigrant from the former Soviet Union, had focused his campaign on weakening the power rabbis and religious politicians have on everyday life in Israel, such as ultra-Orthodox control of the administration of marriage and divorce.

Campaigns run by Likud and Blue and White pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, the Palestinian conflict, relations with the United States and the economy.

An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about a significant change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Three corruption investigations and the Israeli attorney general’s announced intention to charge him with fraud and bribery have also chipped away at Netanyahu’s seeming invincibility.

Netanyahu can argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against indictment. But an election loss could leave him more at risk of prosecution in the graft cases, without the shield of parliamentary immunity that his current political allies had promised to seek for him.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Akram El-Satarri in Gaza; Editing by Timothy Heritage; ((jeffrey.heller@thomsonreuters.com; +97226322202)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote on Tuesday for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases.

The last polls taken before election day show a race that is too close to call. They predict Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White, with neither securing an outright majority.

However, about 10 parties are likely to win parliament seats. The polls also show increasing support for a right-wing, pro-Netanyahu bloc of factions that could hand him a victory.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election Netanyahu said he would annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians seek for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try to form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April, but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. That could change if Netanyahu comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labor Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament. But with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario.

However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would be likely to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset (parliament) seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it is Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to about 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S PEACE PLAN

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

Israel faces new election after Netanyahu misses coalition deadline

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli lawmakers voted early Thursday to dissolve parliament and set the country on the path to a second election within months after right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to put together a ruling coalition before a midnight deadline.

In April Netanyahu appeared set for a fifth term after his Likud Party won 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, even though he faces possible indictment in three corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused his opponents of mounting a witch-hunt.

But despite weeks of negotiations he failed to overcome divisions between secular and religious allies and in the early hours of Thursday, parliament voted by 74-45 to dissolve itself. Another election could be held in September.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell)

Israel’s Netanyahu wins re-election with parliamentary majority: tally

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.

With more than 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government. It would be his record fifth term as premier.

President Reuven Rivlin said on Twitter he would begin meeting next week with political parties that won parliamentary seats to hear who they support for prime minister.

At the sessions, which Rivlin said would be broadcast live “to ensure transparency”, he will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.

The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.

“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 percent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.

His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a center-left parliamentary opposition.

“The skies may look overcast…but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society,” Gantz, 59, wrote in an open letter to supporters.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.

IMMUNITY?

An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where Netanyahu can be expected to argue he should be spared in the national interest. Some analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city last May.

Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledging to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This pre-election promise from Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy. But with Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the prime minister may feel emboldened to advocate annexation.

Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation”.

The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Trump is expected to release his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin, Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Rahaf Ruby, Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Israeli ex-general, polling closest to Netanyahu, joins 2019 election race

FILE PHOTO: Israeli military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz attends a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Nir Elias/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A former Israeli armed forces chief who opinion polls show poses the toughest challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for reelection next year formally established a political party on Thursday.

Details about Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, leaked to local media after it was registered, gave little indication of its ideological tilt.

Along with preserving Israel as “a Jewish and democratic country”, the party pledged unspecified changes to priorities in national security and the economy.

Polling has predicted an easy win for Netanyahu in the April 9 election, with his rightist Likud party taking around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats and on course to form a right-wing coalition government similar to the current cabinet.

The surveys, published after Netanyahu announced on Monday an election some seven months before one was due by law, gave second place to a then-hypothetical Gantz party. The polls forecast it would take around 15 seats.

Netanyahu is running for a fifth term under the shadow of three corruption investigations in which police have recommended his indictment. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Israel’s attorney-general has still to decide whether to charge Netanyahu and it is unclear whether he will make his announcement before the election.

Should Gantz emerge as a center-left candidate, that could work in Netanyahu’s favor by further fracturing an already disparate opposition bloc.

Gantz, 59, became Israel’s top general in 2011 after stints as commander of forces on the combustible northern frontier with Syria and Lebanon and as military attache in Washington. During his four-year term, he oversaw two wars in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)

Israel to hold early election in April: Netanyahu spokesman

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will hold an early general election in April, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, after members of his governing coalition met to discuss differences over legislation.

“The leaders of the coalition decided unanimously to dissolve parliament and go to a new election in early April,” the spokesman wrote on Twitter, quoting from a statement issued by Netanyahu’s political partners.

A coalition crisis over a military conscription bill affecting exemptions from compulsory service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men led to the decision.

Netanyahu, now in his fourth term as prime minister, has been governing with a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. He heads the right-wing Likud party.

Under Israeli law, a national election had to be held by November 2019. Netanyahu’s government would remain in place until a new one is sworn in, after the April poll.

A series of corruption probes against Netanyahu and pending decisions by Israel’s attorney general on whether to follow police recommendations to indict him had raised speculation he would opt to seek a public show of confidence at the ballot box.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and has given no indication he will step down if charged.

The 69-year-old Israeli leader made no immediate comment after his meeting with the coalition leaders. Recent opinion polls have shown his popularity remains strong among Israelis.

The likelihood of an early election increased in November after Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, quit the government, leaving the ruling coalition with its one-seat majority.

No one in Netanyahu’s Likud has made a public challenge against him, and the party is expected to close ranks around him in the coming election.

Outside Likud, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is seen as the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset. Lapid’s party is second to Likud in opinion polls.

Israel’s former army chief, Benny Gantz, is seen as a dovish potential candidate who could tip the balance in favor of a center-left bloc, but has not yet thrown his hat in the ring.

On the right, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to lead a right-wing bloc if Likud emerges in a weaker position in an election.

Netanyahu first led Israel from 1996 to 1999, and returned in 2009. His current government has been in power since May 2015.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche)

Netanyahu avoids early elections for now after minister’s about-face

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday avoided an early election for now after a coalition partner backed away from toppling a government hanging on to power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s U-turn surprised many pundits who had predicted the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party would quit in protest after Netanyahu rejected his demand to be named defense minister and assumed the post himself.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been making last-ditch efforts to prevent the collapse of the government, which has a majority of just one seat in parliament since Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense chief last week.

Outflanking Netanyahu on the right, Lieberman, an ultranationalist, lashed out in his resignation announcement at the government’s acceptance of a ceasefire with Gaza’s dominant armed group, Hamas, amid a surge in cross-border violence

“You win some, you lose some,” Bennett said in a televised address, shrugging off Netanyahu’s rejection of his bid for the defense post, long regarded in Israel as its second most important cabinet portfolio.

Had Bennett pulled his party out of the weakened coalition, as Jewish Home officials had threatened, Netanyahu would have been left with a minority government, making an election likely ahead of a national ballot that is not due until November 2019.

Bennett said Jewish Home party was withdrawing all its political demands and would stand by the four-term prime minister.

SECURITY CHALLENGES

In a speech late on Sunday appealing to coalition partners to remain loyal, Netanyahu cited unspecified security challenges ahead and hinted at future action by Israel against its enemies.

He repeated that theme in remarks to parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, in which he said that “together we can surmount any challenge and ensure Israel’s security”.

Such comments have left political and military affairs commentators in Israel pondering whether Netanyahu is indeed planning new military action, either in Gaza or possibly against Hezbollah guerrilla missile sites in Lebanon, or engaging in political spin that would appeal to his right-wing voter base.

An opinion poll last week suggested that Israelis, including those living outside border areas that were struck by more than 400 rockets from Gaza during the flareup, were unhappy with Netanyahu over the continued threat from the Israeli-blockaded territory.

It was a rare dip in popularity for a leader who has been on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

“National security is beyond politics,” Netanyahu said in his speech on Sunday. “I will not say this evening when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it.”

In his own address, Bennett said he wants to believe that Netanyahu was serious about the threats facing Israel.

If so, he said, “I say here to the prime minister: “We are withdrawing all our political demands and we will stand by you in this mighty task, so that Israel starts winning again.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Richard Balmforth)