Ahead of coalition talks, Liberman says won’t budge on religion and state issues
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Ahead of coalition talks, Liberman says won’t budge on religion and state issues

Yisrael Beytenu head says coalition entry dependent on party sticking to its basic principles on security, immigration and absorption

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman on Saturday reiterated that his party will not join a coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unless his demands are met on security, immigration, and religion and state issues, in a government likely to be dominated by the religious right.

“Tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. negotiations will begin between the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu parties,” Liberman tweeted. “Yisrael Beytenu has a clear agenda consisting of three issues: security, immigration and absorption, and religion and state. With all the will to join a coalition, and with a willingness to be flexible, we will not give up our basic principles.”

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday officially tasked Netanyahu with assembling a coalition to govern the 21st Knesset. Netanyahu, who will be serving as prime minister for an unprecedented fifth term, is expected to cobble together a coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Liberman’s backing of Netanyahu cemented the prime minister’s right-wing coalition at 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. But Liberman’s party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Reuven Rivlin in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 17, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Liberman, whose base of supporters is largely made up of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, campaigned on opposing “religious coercion,” and supports public transportation and allowing mini-markets to remain open on Shabbat, in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, and passing legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, telling lawmakers they must pass new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. In 2018, the court granted the government another month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January, but the Knesset was then dissolved and elections set for April 9.

Liberman said last week that he wants to be defense minister again, and also wants the Absorption Ministry for his party and on Monday threatened that issues of religion and state could be a deal-breaker.

“If we’re forced to choose between giving up on the [ultra-Orthodox] draft law to remain in the coalition, or sitting in the opposition, we will go to new elections,” Liberman said.

Avigdor Liberman is hosted by UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman at a post-wedding celebration on June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/FLASH90)

On Thursday, the leader of ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party insisted that he would not join Netanyahu’s new government if proposed legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army isn’t changed, heralding tough coalition-building negotiations for the premier. Yaakov Litzman, the current deputy health minister, said all his party’s demands were coordinated with fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas. UTJ has eight Knesset seats.

Another condition Litzman mentioned for joining the government was related to construction work on the Tel Aviv light rail and on a new bridge which has been taking place on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest. “Shabbat is an important issue, and if it won’t be taken care of, I won’t be in the government,” Litzman said, without elaborating or detailing a specific demand.

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