It might sound ludicrous, but Israel could be headed for another early election just a month after the last poll, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces mounting challenges to forming a stable coalition.
That was the threat issued by senior members of Netanyahu's Likud Party this week, and they were taken seriously by at least one major party, Jewish Home, which reportedly reinstated its election campaign committee, just in case.
Netanyahu has until the middle of March (which includes a standard 14-day extension) to present a stable coalition. Should he fail to do so, either another party will be given a chance to form a government, or new elections will be called.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu scored his first coalition partner in Tzipi Livni and her six-seat party, Hatnuah (The Movement). The centrist Kadima Party, which has been reduced to a paltry two seats, is expected to join in the coming days.
All together, that gives Netanyahu 39 out of 120 seats. The ideal solution in the minds of most Israelis would be for Netanyahu to add to that total the centrist Yesh Atid and right-wing Jewish Home parties, giving the coalition a commanding 88 seats.
However, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid have forged something of an alliance, and are refusing to enter the coalition unless Netanyahu agrees to their joint demand that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community be stripped of its exemption from serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Bennett and Lapid also want the ultra-Orthodox to begin entering the work force in greater numbers, or risk losing their massive welfare payouts, which are provided by the government despite the fact that most ultra-Orthodox do not pay taxes.
It is a policy that would shake the existing unwritten rules of Israeli politics, and Netanyahu is presumably fearful of rocking the boat so severely.
Netanyahu has long been chummy with the ultra-Orthodox political sector, and so is looking at bringing the religious Shas Party into the coalition as an alternative to Lapid and Bennett.
Reports Thursday are that Shas is very close to joining the coalition, and the other Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, would likely follow suit.
If that happens, and if Lapid and Bennett stick to their guns, that would give Netanyahu a minority coalition of 57 seats. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office told Israel Hayom that would be unacceptable, and would result in another election.
The idea is to put pressure on Bennett to join the coalition, even if Lapid remains outside. The main plank of Lapid's election platform was ending draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, so it is extremely unlikely he would join a government that includes Shas.
If this is Netanyahu's direction, and if the gamble pays off, making Lapid the head of the opposition could be a two-edged sword. While Lapid and Netanyahu largely see eye-to-eye on security, the peace process and many economic issues, it is no secret that Lapid intends to himself become prime minister one day, and might work undermine Netanyahu and bring about, yes, another early election.
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