Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was racing to save his government on Friday as the fallout from an unpopular ceasefire with Hamas triggered the loss of a second key coalition partner and pushed the country towards early elections.
Mr Netanyahu’s majority had already been whittled down to a single seat by the resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who pulled the support of his party after clashing with Mr Netanyahu over how to handle eight months of flare-ups with Hamas.
Jostling over Mr Lieberman’s coveted portfolio led to the resignation of Naftali Bennett and his hardline rightwing party, the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, according to multiple Israeli media outlets.
Just before the Sabbath on Friday, when the government shuts down, Mr Netanyahu said in a statement that he was making “every effort to preserve the rightwing government” and warned of the consequences of toppling the Likud-led coalition.
The political turmoil capped a week that began with a botched Israeli raid into the Gaza Strip. The raid prompted a two-day volley of Hamas rockets and retaliatory Israeli air strikes, which eventually ended with the controversial ceasefire.
Because of the Sabbath, Israelis may have to wait until Saturday evening or Sunday’s cabinet meeting to see if Mr Netanyahu has been successful in keeping the government together.
He urged his coalition partners “not to repeat the historical mistake of 1992 when the rightwing government was overthrown, the left came into power and brought the Oslo disaster to the State of Israel,” referring to the Oslo Peace Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Unless Mr Netanyahu can persuade seven more members of the Knesset to support his government, elections might be held as early as March 2019, instead of November 2019.
Political analysts said Mr Netanyahu might welcome an excuse for early elections. An encouraging poll for the prime minister on Wednesday suggested his Likud would hold on to its 30 seats in an election, while the traditional leftwing opposition could lose as many as half of its seats to rightwing opponents.
But Mr Netanyahu would contest the elections in the shadow of three investigations by police, who have alleged bribery and fraud in his dealings with wealthy business people. Mr Netanyahu has denied allegations of wrongdoing, blaming the investigations on a conspiracy.
He will also face a challenge to his reputation as “Mr Security” after the Wednesday poll showed that 70 per cent of the country disapproved of how he handled the Gaza situation.
On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu had appeared to accept a shaky ceasefire with Hamas after the failed Israeli raid into Gaza.
The flare-up came after months of shuttle diplomacy brokered by Egypt and the UN for a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas. Mr Netanyahu rejected demands by his coalition colleagues to punish Hamas more than the Israeli military had already done.
Before the ceasefire, it had hit 150 so-called military targets inside the Gaza Strip, and destroyed four multistorey apartment buildings it said were being used by Hamas for military purposes.
Mr Netanyahu pledged 500m Shekels — about $135m — in aid to the communities around the Gaza Strip where most of the rockets and mortars landed. Residents had for days blocked streets and burnt tyres in protest at Mr Netanyahu’s decision.
An election would also pit Mr Bennett and Mr Lieberman against each other for a small slice of the rightwing vote. Mr Bennett’s party appeals to religious Jews who want to settle in the West Bank, while Mr Lieberman’s political support comes from the relatively secular Russian émigré population.