With a deadline for forming a new government fast approaching, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman vowed Tuesday not to capitulate unless his demands are met, saying he would stand firm despite being subjected to unprecedented and “powerful” pressure.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.
In a Facebook post shortly before midnight Tuesday — just 24 hours before the deadline to form a government — Liberman said that in all his years in Israeli politics he had never experienced such pressure.
“I thought I had seen it all, but I was shocked in the last two days from the power of the pressure, the paranoia and the speculation I have been exposed to almost every minute,” he wrote.
Liberman reiterated that he was not refusing to join the government out of some “vendetta” or seeking to bring down Netanyahu. He also said he was not against the ultra-Orthodox community but was fighting against the establishment of a theocracy in Israel.
Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the bill that passed its first reading last July, during the previous Knesset. That version of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.
Liberman, who resigned as Defense Minister in the last government to protest its Gaza policy, also dismissed rumors he was holding out for a deal to be prime minister in a rotation deal with Netanyahu.
“I respect the wishes of the voters and with five seats received in the last elections I have no right and no intention of demanding a rotation for prime minister, and not acting prime minister, and not even deputy prime minister,” he said.
However, he vowed to respect the wishes of his largely secular supporters and also said his party would not be merging forces with the Likud, as Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party agreed to do earlier in the day. “As such the draft law is not caprice, not ego and not revenge, but a foundation-stone of our platform.”
Earlier in the day, Liberman accused the ruling Likud party of trying to clinch a last-minute deal dishonestly.
Amid the coalition stalemate, legislators overnight Monday moved one step closer to dissolving the 21st Knesset less than a month after it was sworn in, with MKs approving in its first reading a bill to disband the legislature.
Meanwhile, Likud lawmakers were told to be in the Knesset from noon Wednesday, in case the opposition withdrew its objections and they would be forced to vote early, Hebrew media reported.
While advancing the possibility of snap elections, Netanyahu has been working feverishly to reach a deal with his would-be coalition partners, and on Monday, his party offered a unspecified compromise on the draft law.
But Liberman blasted the Likud’s offer, saying the proposed compromise was dishonest.
He slammed Likud for praising the ultra-Orthodox parties for their “extraordinary flexibility” in accepting its compromise proposal. “This isn’t flexibility, this is dishonesty,” Liberman said in his post.
“The draft law is just one symptom of ultra-Orthodox extremism,” he added, noting the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over many religion and state issues in Israel.
As the political crisis has intensified in recent days, Likud has accused Liberman of operating out of personal spite against Netanyahu, and has launched a biting campaign against him. But Liberman has brushed off the accusations, maintaining that his refusal to join a Netanyahu-led government under the proposed terms was due to his aversion to religious coercion.
Netanyahu has until Wednesday night to secure a coalition, and has said that barring a deal, he will pass the bill to disband the Knesset — apparently to forestall the prospect of President Reuven Rivlin tasking someone else with forming a coalition. In the version that passed its first reading overnight Monday, the bill set a target date of September 17 for new elections.
It must pass second and third readings for new elections to be called. These readings are likely be held by Wednesday night if no coalition agreement is reached. The Likud-drafted motion could still be pulled at any time before the final vote if a compromise to the coalition crisis is found.
On Monday evening, as lawmakers prepared the dissolution bill, Netanyahu upped the pressure on Liberman, imploring him in a live TV address to put “the good of the nation above every other interest” in order to avert “expensive, wasteful” elections.
He said the dispute over the ultra-Orthodox draft bill was a matter of “cosmetics” and “semantics” that by no means justified calling new elections. “You don’t hold elections over cosmetics,” Netanyahu said from the Knesset.
Holding another election so soon after the previous national vote, on April 9, would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.
Agencies contributed to this report.