Israel’s government was on the verge of collapse Sunday night as a split over a controversial new law designating the country as a Jewish state deepened into an all-out assault by cabinet rivals on Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister.
Mr. Netanyahu signalled that he was ready to call an early general election to stifle the rebellion, led by ministers from centrist coalition partners to his right-wing Likud Party.
He lashed out angrily after his finance minister, Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, publicly accused him of playing “petty politics” while ignoring weighty issues such as the budget and Israel’s foreign relations, in the latest of a series of rancorous exchanges.
“Recently, hardly a day passes without us running into diktats or threats of resignation, or ultimatums and such, as ministers attack the government and its prime minister,” Mr. Netanyahu told Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
“I hope that we will be able to return to proper conduct. This is what the public expects of us because only thus is it possible to run the country, and if not, we will draw conclusions.”
His comments were the clearest sign yet that the country was heading toward an early election, less than two years after Mr. Netanyahu formed a mostly right-wing coalition in which Mr. Lapid headed the second-biggest party.
The combative Mr. Netanyahu has faced falling approval ratings but opinion surveys indicate that Likud would again emerge as the largest party in a fresh poll, giving him a fourth term as premier. After days of talk of a “coalition crisis,” sources close to the Israeli leader said the country was “98% into an election,” the liberal newspaperHaaretz reported.
The open talk of an election followed threats from Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, and Mr. Lapid to resign if a controversial bill to declare Israel “the nation state of the Jewish people” became law.
Although its 1948 Declaration of Independence already does this, critics say enshrining it in law would undermine Israel’s democratic character, enrage the country’s Arab minority, and possibly enable future illiberal legislation.
The prime minister says the law is necessary to fend off Palestinian opposition to Jews’ right to live in Israel, but Mr. Lapid and Ms. Livni say it is a threat to the country’s democratic character since it would reduce Arabs to second-class citizenship, and that it has been introduced for electioneering purposes.
Amid the political manoeuvring, a parliamentary vote on the bill scheduled for Wednesday is likely to be postponed, government insiders suggested.
The cabinet approved the Jewish nation state bill last week against a backdrop of increasing tensions between Jews and Arabs and outbreaks of anti-Arab racism. On Saturday, arsonists attacked a mixed school in Jerusalem that promotes coexistence between the two communities.
In an unabashed personal attack, Mr. Lapid told an audience in Tel Aviv on the weekend that he had not spoken to Mr. Netanyahu outside cabinet meetings for five weeks.
“The major issues are stuck and the prime minister isn’t doing anything about the state budget, Israel’s international relations, personal security and housing,” he said. “Instead we are dealing with the pettiest of politics.
“The prime minister needs to decide that he doesn’t want elections. This crisis can be solved in a conversation between us.”
Nahum Barnea, an influential columnist with the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, criticized the prime minister in even more vitriolic terms, writing: “He has gone into what people who know much more than me about psychology call a manic-depressive state. There are ministers who are certain that he is no longer functional.”
A new opinion poll published Sunday in the Haaretz daily provided little incentive for anyone to head to elections, though.
Asked which politician is most suited to be prime minister, 35% of respondents said they favoured Mr. Netanyahu, down from 42% in August, after a war against militants in the Gaza Strip. It said 38% were satisfied with his performance, down from 77% in early August. Forty-seven per cent said Mr. Netanyahu should step down before the next elections to allow someone else to hold the top job.
Yet the same poll showed shrinking support for Mr. Lapid, Ms. Livni and the opposition Labor Party. And the fact that the more liberal side of the map is split into three main parties also creates awkwardness for the opposition and may be preventing momentum for change.
The only party that showed gains was the hard-line “Jewish Home.”
One wild card is the possible entrance to the race by Moshe Kahlon, a former member of the Likud Party who has combined an agenda favouring middle-class economic issues with a tough policy on security matters, and who could, some believe, ultimately throw his weight behind a different prime ministerial prospect than the Mr. Netanyahu. He is polling around 10% in most surveys.
The poll interviewed 511 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, said it is not in anyone’s interest, except perhaps Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, to push for new elections.
“But politics is not always rational, and sometimes the dynamics of hatred, the statements made off camera, they tend to take on a life of their own,” he said.
“Netanyahu is unliked by most Israeli voters,” he added. “But there isn’t anyone else to challenge him.”
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