Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party lashed out Saturday against Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, saying a vote for the foreign minister’s right-wing party was a vote for a left-wing government.
Earlier on Saturday Liberman said his faction was not looking for political mergers, but was also not ruling out sitting in a government coalition headed by the Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog or by Netanyahu. He also jabbed at his former ally, hinting the prime minister did not take a firm enough stance against Hamas in last summer’s war.
The back-and-forth underlined the increasingly bitter rivalry between Liberman, who used to be Netanyahu’s bureau chief, and the prime minister, which could impact coalition-building prospects in the aftermath of the March 17 elections.
The Likud party responded to Liberman’s remarks in a statement, saying Netanyahu “managed the operation firmly and responsibly, together with the defense minister and chief of staff, and wasn’t dragged by a variety of different suggestions.”
“The operation was governed with a broad view of safeguarding the security of the state and the lives of the citizens and IDF soldiers,” the party said.
Netanyahu’s party then took a swipe at its erstwhile ally, who ran with Likud in a single list in the 2013 elections but subsequently severed the alliance.
“Liberman’s remarks concerning his willingness to sit in a government led by Herzog prove that a vote for Liberman is likely to shift votes from the right to the left and bring about the formation of a left-wing government,” the Likud party said.
He also indicated that his relations with Netanyahu may not be “ideal,” following his criticism of the PM’s handling of this summer’s 50-day conflict with Hamas and his undoing of the merger of their parties that saw them run on a joint list in the January 2013 elections. But “this approach, to dismiss someone just because of your personal relationship with them, is wrong. One must be matter-of-fact,” he said.
The foreign minister hinted at tough disagreements with the prime minister, particularly during Operation Protective Edge, but added that he was not in the “anyone but Bibi” camp, a reference to a growing sentiment among rival politicians and some in the Israeli public who call to vote for anyone but Netanyahu, no matter what faults the prime minister’s rivals may have.
His remarks came amid reports the Yesh Atid party headed by Yair Lapid was courting both him and the leader of the newly founded Kulanu party, Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister, for a possible union.
In a bid to form a large center-left bloc to challenge Netanyahu, Herzog and Tzipi Livni, head of Hatnua, agreed to merge their parties and share the premiership (“rotating” after two years) should they form the next government, an agreement which Liberman said was lacking character.
“Let’s talk about what they propose, what solutions they offer. The media is doing a dishonest job [of covering the merger]. It doesn’t delve deeper into what they are offering,” Liberman said.
“I belong to the real nationalist camp,” he went on. “I don’t run away from problems and I don’t sweep them under the rug. We must be responsible and serious. Not everything is [about] slogans. We’re being dragged into [a battle of] labels. There is no right and left. There are serious people who are not dragged into situations and there are those who are,” he said, in an apparent dig at Netanyahu, whom he accused of being dragged into Operation Protective Edge by not initiating firmer action against Hamas.
“During Protective Edge I said we mustn’t be drawn in. But we were, we didn’t initiate. I said: Go all the way, don’t be wusses,” he said using an old Hebrew slang word “laflaf,” which generally means nerd.
On Thursday, Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen revealed that Lapid and Liberman held talks in recent weeks to discuss the possibility of a merger deal between their parties, adding that Kahlon was considering joining forces with them.
However, both Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu later each issued denials of the reports, insisting that there were no merger negotiations between the two parties.