After ultimatum, Netanyahu claims Liberman ‘fully coordinated’ with Arabs, Gantz

In cabinet meeting, PM accuses Yisrael Beytenu of plotting minority government with Joint List, says Liberman’s demands are in essence only of Likud, not Blue and White

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 10, 2019. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 10, 2019. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning launched an offensive against Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, accusing him of “fully coordinating” his moves with the Arab parties and planning to form a minority government with them and the left wing.

In a dramatic announcement Saturday night, Liberman presented a challenge to both Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, saying that if they do not accept tough compromises in order to form a coalition together, he will back the other candidate and renege on his pledge to only support a national unity government.

“Gantz must accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence, and Netanyahu should say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc,” Liberman told Channel 12 news.

Liberman implied that if Netanyahu refused to separate from the 55-MK bloc of right-wing and religious parties, he could support, from the outside, a minority government led by Gantz. Such an arrangement would see the hawkish right-wing leader allied with the Arab lawmakers, whom he has long accused of “disloyalty” and “terror support.”

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu responded to Liberman by saying it was all a “show” and his ultimatum was in fact directed only at the Likud party and not at Blue and White, since he was only demanding that Likud ditch its partners and not Blue and White.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at Neve Ilan west of Jerusalem, September 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He quoted recent statements by Liberman — a right-wing politician who has for many years campaigned on aggressive messages against Arab Israelis — calling the leaders of the Joint List a “fifth column” and saying their true place was in the parliament in Ramallah rather than the Knesset.

Netanyahu then quoted a transcript published over the weekend by the Haaretz newspaper of a call between its journalist and MK Osama Saadi of the Joint List, during which Saadi said Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar had come for a meeting.

He claimed that was evidence that Liberman was “fully coordinated with the Joint List and Gantz.”

Ahead of the meeting, Liberman wrote on Facebook that he had contacted Netanyahu and Gantz and asked them to hold separate meetings with Liberman to demand that Gantz accept the current premier going first as prime minister in a rotation agreement, and that Netanyahu dismantle his religious bloc. He also said he had set up a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday.

Netanyahu said he would agree to meet Liberman, but added that he would in turn ask the Yisrael Beytenu chief to promise to vote against a government that relies on the Joint List. He called such a coalition “the worst and most dangerous scenario for the State of Israel.”

Earlier Sunday, a Likud official dismissed Liberman’s ultimatum, suggesting the former defense minister was bluffing and would not commit political “suicide” by teaming up with the Arab lawmakers to support a minority government led by the centrist party.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Liberman is playing poker without cards,” an unnamed Likud official told the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily in a report published Sunday.

“What emerges from Liberman’s statements is that Benny Gantz has three options: elections, unity with Likud based on the president’s framework, or a minority government with the Arabs and Liberman. The last seems a highly implausible scenario,” said the official, describing it as political “suicide.”

“The prospect of Liberman going with that option is slim. Even if he does act on it, its candidacy will be very short and will eventually, after several months, lead to additional elections in which Liberman will pay a heavy price,” he added.

If new elections are called as a result of the failure of a minority government, “we will start out with much better conditions. Even if we sit in the opposition for a few months, it’s not too bad,” said the Likud source.

“He’s threatening but his gun is pretty empty,” the Likud official said.

Also Sunday, several Likud ministers took to public radio to declare they would not abandon their right-wing and ultra-Orthodox political allies, rebuffing Liberman’s ultimatum.

There was no comment from Gantz or Blue and White officials on the ultimatum.

President Reuven Rivlin presents Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the mandate to form a new Israeli government, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form one, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Gantz with attempting to form a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September 17 elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed are seen as just as slim, with the Netanyahu-led bloc of 55 lawmakers Likud formed with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious factions vowing to only enter a government together.

The bloc has been a major stumbling block in talks between Likud and Blue and White. The two major parties have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another, third round of elections.

The president’s unity government scheme would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as premier.

In setting out his idea in September, Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

It was Liberman’s refusal to join a Likud-led right-wing government after the April vote — over a disagreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties — that led to Netanyahu dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections. In the September elections, he jumped from five seats to eight, making him a potential kingmaker.

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