Netanyahu's coalition partner calls for early elections in Israel

Israel is moving closer to early elections after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, said it wants a vote "as soon as possible," and on Sunday will press for consultations on a date.

Vote could occur in fallout that's continuing after defence minister's resignation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, is shown with Education Minister Naftali Bennett in an August 2016 file photo in Jerusalem. It appears the pair could not come to agreement on the way forward for the coalition after a meeting on Friday. (Abir Sultan/Reuters)

Israel moved closer to early elections after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, said Friday it wants a vote "as soon as possible," and on Sunday will press for consultations on a date.

The call for early elections came after a meeting Friday between Netanyahu and Education Minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. The two men have been locked in a tense rivalry, with Bennett often criticizing Netanyahu from the right.

Bennett had demanded the post of defence minister, after incumbent Avigdor Lieberman resigned this week in protest over Netanyahu's Gaza policies.

A senior Jewish Home official said it became clear after the Bennett-Netanyahu meeting that there "is a need to go to elections as soon as possible." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the content of a closed meeting.

The official said leaders of coalition parties will meet Sunday to co-ordinate the date for early elections.

The apparent failure of the Netanyahu-Bennett meeting seemed to seal the coalition's fate.

Lieberman continues criticisms

The departure of Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party had left the coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Without Bennett's Jewish Home, Netanyahu's coalition would lose its parliamentary majority.

The political crisis began with a botched Israeli undercover raid in Gaza last Sunday. The raid led to two days of intense cross-border fighting. Gaza's Hamas rulers fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, while Israeli warplanes targeted scores of sites in Gaza.

Netanyahu has taken over the portfolio of defence minister after the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman, right, seen in July 2016 photo. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

After two days, Egypt brokered an informal truce between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas. Netanyahu averted a war, but drew blistering criticism from ultra-nationalists.

Lieberman resigned in protest on Wednesday.

On Friday, he toured southern Israel and accused Netanyahu of being soft on terrorism. He said Netanyahu's Gaza policy is strengthening Hamas.

Lieberman alleged that the truce will put southern Israel under a growing threat from Hamas, similar to the threat posed to northern Israel by Lebanon's heavily armed Hezbollah militia.

"It's impossible that after Hamas launches 500 rockets at the Israeli border communities, the heads of Hamas are actually getting immunity from the Israeli cabinet," he told reporters.

"We are now feeding a monster" that will only grow if not stopped, he said. "Within a year we will have a twin brother of Hezbollah, with all the implications."

But on Friday, Hamas kept border protests widely restrained.

Thousands of Palestinians participated in a Hamas-led rally along the perimeter fence dividing Gaza from Israel, with most crowds staying 300 meters from the fence.

However, Gaza's Health Ministry said 40 Palestinians were wounded, 18 by live fire from Israeli forces. Witnesses said others were wounded in stone-throwing incidents at the usual five protest locations.

No tire burnings or attempts to breach the fence were reported. Such acts have often triggered lethal Israeli army fire. Since the near-weekly protests began in March, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed.

Hamas is pressing for an end to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that beleaguered Gaza's two million residents since the Islamic group took full power there in 2007.

Prior to the Israeli commando raid that went awry, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver $15 million as a first instalment to help Hamas pay civil servants long overdue salaries. The move was seen as an attempt to defuse tension, but Lieberman also criticized it as yet another measure that will strengthen Hamas.

Israel's elections had been mandated to occur by late 2019.

Netanyahu, like only David Ben-Gurion before him, is in a third term as Israeli leader. But in addition to this most recent turmoil, he has been named as a suspect in three existing corruption probes.

In February, police recommended charging him with bribery in the first two. Israel's attorney general has not announced a decision on whether to bring an indictment.

With files from Reuters