By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 is over the framing of a bill that would extend a long-standing military service exemption 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, possibly months from now, 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 witnesses. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
In a statement on Monday, the four-term prime minister said he wanted to keep the 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, was due to comment on the bill backed by ultra-Orthodox factions. It passed a preliminary vote in a parliamentary committee on Monday.
As expected, Lieberman reiterated his rejection of 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 (conscription bill) 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.
He was referring to votes in parliament that 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.
Netanyahu has previously signaled he wants his government to serve a full term but has not ruled out an early election. The next election is not due until November 2019.
"I want to finish the term of this government, if the coalition leaders agree that is what will happen. If they don’t, then we’ll have early elections," he said last week during a trip to the United States.
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