JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition edged nearer to collapse Friday as officials close to the country’s education minister said he saw no point in continuing with the current government, making early elections look increasingly inevitable.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, which holds eight seats in Israel’s parliament, had demanded that he be appointed defense minister after the surprise resignation of Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday in protest over a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza.
However, a meeting between Bennett and Netanyahu ended with no agreement Friday. An official close to Bennett, whose party holds three cabinet posts, said it had become clear that “there was a need to go to elections as soon as possible.” The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing deliberations, cited the decision of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to veto Bennett’s taking over the role.
Analysts have long speculated that Netanyahu would call early elections to win a new mandate as allegations of corruption and the potential for indictments drew close. However, his popularity has taken a blow in recent days because of what some see as a soft stance toward Gaza. Israelis from border communities near the territory demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, expressing anger over the cease-fire with Hamas, which came after militant factions in the Palestinian enclave fired more than 450 rockets toward Israel in the worst bout of cross-border violence since the 2014 war.
Some 74 percent of Israelis are dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza, according to a snap poll by Israel Television News. The poll suggests that Netanyahu’s Likud would win the most seats in the parliament if elections were held today, but would drop to 29 seats vs. its current 32.
With his popularity dented, it appeared that Netanyahu might be trying to forestall early elections. In a statement, his office said that he stressed to Bennett the importance of making every effort to preserve the right-wing government. He emphasized that it was crucial not to repeat the mistakes of 1992, when left-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin won elections after the right-wing coalition government collapsed.
Netanyahu will hold talks with the leaders of the coalition early next week, the statement said. The working week begins Sunday in Israel.
“He hopes the ministers will act responsibly and not make a historic mistake,” it added.
However, it looks as though Netanyahu will have little choice but to call early elections. The official close to Bennett said an election date would be coordinated among coalition partners Sunday. There must be a window of at least 90 days between elections being called and then held.
Liberman’s withdrawal from the government this week left Netanyahu with a slim one-seat majority in the 120-seat Israeli parliament, the Knesset. If Bennett also pulls out, Netanyahu loses his majority.
Upon his resignation Wednesday, Liberman cited Israel’s decision to allow a $15 million cash donation by Qatar to Gaza as another “turning point” for him. Netanyahu has been under pressure to alleviate the security situation in the south after regular flare-ups, most notably weekly demonstrations at the border fence, urged on by Hamas, and incendiary kites launched into Israel.
The cash was sent as part of a deal that would see Hamas stop demonstrators from approaching the fence and sending flaming kites in exchange for an expanded Gaza fishing zone and internationally funded development projects to improve the humanitarian situation for the territory’s 2 million residents.
Gaza has faced stifling Israeli trade rules for more than a decade, with the movement of its residents also severely limited. Egypt also imposes tight restrictions on its border with Gaza.
The prospects for a deal between Hamas and Israel looked like they were dramatically unraveling Sunday, however, after a botched Israeli operation into Gaza resulted in the death of a Hamas commander and six other militants. Factions in Gaza vowed revenge and began a rocket barrage as the Israeli military pounded targets inside the strip.
It’s unclear whether the criticism Netanyahu has faced will affect policy on Gaza. His office has said he will take over the position of defense minister.
Given that fact, “there is no reason to believe there will be any dramatic change in policy,” said Tal Shalev, a senior political correspondent for the Israeli news website Walla. The Israeli military also advocates quelling Gaza through nonmilitary means as it remains more focused on threats on the northern border, she said.
However, the situation is volatile, and if there is another escalation, Netanyahu might submit to public pressure, Shalev said.
“Public opinion is boiling at the policy of containment,” she said. “If there is an escalation, then Netanyahu may not be able to continue to convince the public that a cease-fire is the best option.”