JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly urged his feuding coalition partners on Monday to remain in the government, despite speculation he was seeking its collapse and a snap election to help him survive corruption allegations.
The cabinet dispute centres on a long-standing faultline in Israeli society between those who serve in the military and those who receive a religious exemption. This has surfaced again over the framing of a bill that would extend such exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students.
Opposition politicians and at least one coalition partner have suggested Netanyahu is not committed to resolving the issue and might actually prefer to let the government unravel.
An early election, political commentators said, could be used by Netanyahu to shore up public support before Israel's attorney-general decides whether to accept police recommendations to indict him in two graft cases.
Recent opinion polls have shown strong backing for his right-wing Likud party, even as he faces possible bribery charges in those investigations, suspicions of corruption in at least one other case, and testimony by three former aides who have turned state's witness. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
In a statement on Monday, the four-term prime minister said he wanted to keep his current six-party coalition intact.
"I call on all the coalition partners, and chief among them Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to remain in the government and continue this partnership in order to ensure security, prosperity and stability for the State of Israel," he said.
Netanyahu issued the statement minutes before Lieberman, head of the secular Yisrael Beitenu party that opposes the exemption from military service for religious students, was due to comment on a bill backed by ultra-Orthodox factions. It passed a preliminary vote in a parliamentary committee on Monday.
Later in the day Netanyahu was summoned by lawmakers to address parliament about the current crisis and reiterated that there was still time to settle any differences.
"Should there be an election, we will run and we will win. But we are not there yet. The hour is late, but not too late," he said, above heckles from the opposition. "A supreme effort must be made, one last supreme effort in order to preserve the government in its current composition."
The next election is not due until November 2019.
As expected, Lieberman again rejected the legislation but made clear his party, which has five of the coalition's 66 seats in the 120-member parliament, would stay in the government for now.
"As long as it has not gone through second and third readings we will fight from within (the government). The moment it passes the second and third readings, we will draw our own conclusions," Lieberman said of the bill.
Those votes in parliament could be months away, a time gap that could leave room for compromise.
For decades the exemption from military service on religious grounds has caused friction in Israel, where most Jewish men and women are called up for military service when they turn 18.
The ultra-Orthodox say their study of the Torah is vital for the continued survival of the Jewish people and also fear that young men serving in the army would come into contact with women and with less pious elements in society.
Last September, Israel's Supreme Court gave parliament a year to pass a new conscription bill after ruling that parts of the existing exemption were unconstitutional.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff)