Israel Minister Says Not Quitting, Leaving Coalition Intact


Israel's defense minister said Monday he would remain in the government for now, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition intact after intensifying speculation over whether the country is headed for early polls.

The crisis within Netanyahu's right-wing coalition follows speculation over whether the premier wants early polls to bolster his political standing ahead of his possible indictment for bribery in the coming months.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's announcement does not bring an end to the coalition crisis and came with a warning that he still could resign later.

But progress has been made on a compromise that could lessen the chances of elections for the time being.

"We shall not volunteer to leave the government," Lieberman told a meeting of lawmakers from his Yisrael Beitenu party.

"There is no more interesting post than the post of defense minister. I do not know of anyone who would volunteer to leave the job. We are all as one here."

Netanyahu separately called on Lieberman and all other coalition partners to remain in the government.

He has repeatedly said he wants the coalition to last its entire term, which ends in November 2019, but some members of his coalition suspect him of allowing the crisis to worsen to expedite elections.

Earlier Monday, Israeli ministers gave initial approval to a bill exempting young ultra-Orthodox men from military service, the first concrete step towards resolving the crisis.

Lieberman does not support the bill, but his comments on Monday left the government with some room for maneuver in the coming weeks.

The coalition has been at loggerheads since ultra-Orthodox parties said they would not support next year's budget unless a law is passed to exempt religious students from military service.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said he would resign if the budget does not pass in the Knesset's winter session, which ends on March 18.

But in a late meeting Sunday, ultra-Orthodox factions told Netanyahu they would agree to support the budget if the military conscription bill passed the ministerial committee and an initial parliamentary reading, postponing a final vote until the summer session.

Netanyahu, 68, could soon face charges in at least two separate corruption affairs. He has been prime minister for a total of 12 years, from 1996-1999 and again since 2009.

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