Benjamin Netanyahu Image Credit: AP

Tel Aviv - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in keeping his tottering governing coalition together, as a hawkish rival who was denied the defence portfolio said he would give the government more time to toughen its approach against Hamas in Gaza.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who was widely expected to topple the government by pulling his eight-person Jewish Home party out of the coalition, instead said he will stay for now. Israel’s benchmark stock index extended its gains after the announcement and the shekel reversed earlier losses.

Bennett’s shift comes after Netanyahu, in a prime-time speech Sunday night, said he would not make Bennett defence minister.

“I want to believe Netanyahu,” Bennett said in a news conference at the Knesset, alluding to the prime minister’s promises of a stern response to any attacks on Israel. “The test will be deeds, not words.”

The crisis was triggered November 14 when Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman quit and pulled his Yisrael Beitenu party’s five legislators from the government, saying it wasn’t responding forcefully enough to Hamas. That left Netanyahu with the support of just 61 members of the 120-seat parliament.

If Jewish Home also left the government, Netanyahu would lose his majority and early elections would likely be called.

Elections currently are slated for November 2019, but no Israeli coalition in the past 30 years has served out its term. The current one, formed in 2015, is one of the longest-lasting. Israeli commentators had predicted elections would be advanced to March.

Netanyahu succeeded in buying himself some time, but the question of how to deal with Gaza will remain explosive, said Hebrew University political scientist Gideon Rahat, a senior associate at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Israel’s politics are in the hands of Hamas,” he said. “We see that Netanyahu is very strong, but Hamas can give him trouble.”

Polls suggest a new vote wouldn’t produce a significantly changed parliament. According to a Hadashot News poll Saturday, Netanyahu’s Likud would remain the dominant party if elections were held today, with its representation stable at 30 seats; Bennett’s Jewish Home party would rise slightly to 10 seats.

Bennett and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who had urged early elections, both said they expected Netanyahu to win another term atop a conservative government.

However, such calculations have proven wrong in the past once the election genie is out of the bottle.