A key coalition partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government said that he would not withdraw his party, keeping the coalition intact despite a crisis triggered by a violent flare-up with Gaza militants.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver statements to members of the media, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver statements to members of the media, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018. (Reuters)

A key Israeli minister said on Monday he will not quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition for now despite sharp disagreements, potentially ending a crisis that has threatened to topple the government and provoke snap polls.

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

Netanyahu has refused to give the post to Bennett, one of his main political rivals, despite the coalition crisis.

Bennett, whose far-right party holds eight seats in parliament, said he would give Netanyahu time to correct course on a range of issues.

"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.

"I know I'll pay a political price – not the end of the world, you win some, you lose some," Bennett said.

"It's better that the prime minister beats me in a political battle than (Hamas leader Ismail) Haniya beats Israel."

Netanyahu on defence minister portfolio

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said on Sunday he would take on the defence minister portfolio, rejecting calls to dissolve his government.

Netanyahu said heading to elections now, amid repeated violent confrontations with Gaza militants, was "irresponsible" of his coalition partners, who have been pushing for early polls since the resignation last week of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman over a Gaza ceasefire.

"Today, I take on for the first time the position of defence minister," said Netanyahu, speaking from Israel's defence headquarters in Tel Aviv in a statement broadcast live at the top of the evening newscasts.

"We are in one of the most complex security situations and during a period like this, you don't topple a government. During a period like this you don't go to elections," he said.

The sudden coalition crisis was sparked by the resignation of the hawkish Lieberman, who had demanded a far stronger response last week to the most massive wave of rocket attacks on Israel since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war.

The latest exchange of rocket and missile fire was triggered by a deadly Israeli incursion into Hamas-governed Gazan territory.

Lieberman alleged the ceasefire agreement reached with Gaza's Hamas rulers will put southern Israel under a growing threat from the group, similar to that posed to northern Israel by Lebanon's heavily armed Hezbollah group.

Netanyahu spoke Sunday night after a crucial meeting with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on resolving the coalition crisis.

Kahlon's office said earlier that his meeting with Netanyahu ended without a conclusion and they would meet again later in the week.

Netanyahu said earlier on Sunday he would try to convince Kahlon and his centrist Kulanu party to stay in the fold in a "last effort" to prevent the collapse of his government, which has been rocked by the resignation of its defence minister over a ceasefire agreement with Gaza militants.

"It would be both unnecessary and incorrect to go to elections. We remember well what happened when elements inside the coalitions took down Likud governments in 1992 and in 1999," he said, noting the past two elections in which the Labor Party came to power.

"We need to do everything we can to prevent repeating these mistakes," he added.

Tottering coalition

The departure of Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party leaves the coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. 

Netanyahu's other partners say that makes governing untenable and would leave the coalition susceptible to the extortion of any single lawmaker until elections scheduled for November 2019.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, already threatened to bring down the government if he is not appointed defence minister. Bennett, a key coalition partner and one of Netanyahu's main right-wing rivals, announced he would give his own statement on Monday morning.

Netanyahu is trying to convince his coalition partners to stay, and his Likud allies are already preparing to pin the blame on them if that effort fails.

"I think that there is no reason to shorten the term of a national government, not even for one day, and at this moment it's in the hands of the education minister and the finance minister," said Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security.

No Israeli government has served out its full term since 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or a strategic move by the prime minister to maximise his chances of re-election.

Netanyahu under fire

Though Netanyahu has been reportedly flirting with the idea of moving up elections himself in recent months, the current timing is not ideal for him.

He has come under heavy criticism for agreeing to the Gaza ceasefire, especially from within his own political base and in the working-class towns in southern Israel that are typically strongholds of his Likud Party. 

But with Lieberman forcing his hand and the other coalition partners appearing eager to head to the polls he may not have a choice.

Most opinion polls show Netanyahu easily securing re-election, which would secure him a place in Israeli history as the country's longest-serving leader. 

But several factors could trip him up, including a potential corruption indictment that could knock him out of contention.

Police have recommended he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in two cases and have questioned him at length on another. The country has long been eagerly awaiting the attorney general's decision on whether to press charges.

Netanyahu has angrily dismissed the accusations against him, characterising them as part of a media-driven witch-hunt that is obsessed with removing him from office.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies