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In Israel Efforts intensify to prevent early polls

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Some coalition partners accuse Netanyahu of wanting early elections to bolster his political standing ahead of his possible indictment for bribery in the coming months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on March 12, 2018 play

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on March 12, 2018

(AFP)

Efforts to prevent early elections in Israel intensified on Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing possible indictment for corruption, considered his next moves.

Israel's parliament was expected to take up key measures later in the day in what could signal whether Netanyahu's right-wing coalition will survive for now or head towards elections that could be held as early as June.

Some coalition partners accuse Netanyahu of wanting early elections to bolster his political standing ahead of his possible indictment for bribery in the coming months.

Polls suggest he could remain prime minister after fresh elections even with corruption investigations hanging over him.

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he wants his coalition to last to the end of its term -- November 2019 -- but he also used a parliament speech on Monday to issue a challenge to his opponents.

"If there are elections, we shall take part and we shall win. But we are not there," Netanyahu said.

"It is late, but not too late, and we must make a final supreme effort to preserve the current government over time."

Netanyahu's legal woes are the focus of the coalition crisis, with a range of politicians accusing him of allowing it to worsen to give him the option of forcing early polls.

But while Netanyahu's future dominates the conversation, the resolution of the crisis hinges on separate, more technical issues.

A number of votes must occur before the end of the week to greatly lessen the chances of early elections.

All of those votes -- on a budget for 2019 and legislation to exempt young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military conscription -- could occur by the end of Tuesday.

The dispute centres on ultra-Orthodox parties having demanded that the conscription bill be passed before they agree to vote for the 2019 budget.

At the same time, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon wants the budget approved before parliament's current session ends this week and has threatened to quit if it does not happen.

Separately and perhaps equally as important, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposes the conscription bill and wants to see ultra-Orthodox men serve in the military like their secular counterparts.

'Vote as one'

A compromise has been seeking to balance those divergent interests.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have agreed to support the budget if the conscription bill passes an initial parliament reading for now, with a final vote postponed until the summer session.

Based on that compromise, parliament could give final approval to the budget and preliminary approval to the conscription bill as early as Tuesday night.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators block a road during a protest against Israeli army conscription in the town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018 play

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators block a road during a protest against Israeli army conscription in the town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018

(AFP)

A ministerial committee would also have to vote down an appeal to the conscription legislation.

Lieberman has stuck to his position of opposing the conscription bill, but says he will not quit the government over it for now.

He has signalled he could quit if the conscription bill is given final approval, but also held out the possibility of a compromise on that if a new bill is crafted that the defence establishment accepts.

Lieberman vowed on Tuesday that his Yisrael Beitenu party would "vote as one against the bill" as it stands now.

"Can elections still be prevented? Absolutely," Lieberman said.

Should Lieberman and his party quit, Netanyahu's coalition could in theory continue with a one-seat majority in parliament.

Netanyahu however says that he does not want to do so, calling it unsustainable.

The 68-year-old premier could soon face charges in at least two separate corruption affairs, while investigations are continuing into two others.

Three of his former associates have signed state witness deals with police.

Police recommended his indictment for bribery in the first two cases in February and the attorney general is considering how to proceed, a process expected to take months.

In one case, Netanyahu and his family are accused of accepting expensive gifts from wealthy supporters in exchange for financial benefits or favours.

The other alleges he sought a secret deal with the publisher of a top-selling newspaper for favourable coverage.

Netanyahu has been prime minister for a total of 12 years, from 1996 to 1999 and again since 2009.

He is not legally required to step down if indicted -- only if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted.

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