All eyes on Liberman as Netanyahu, Gantz each urge him to ditch the other
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All eyes on Liberman as Netanyahu, Gantz each urge him to ditch the other

PM, Blue and White leaders continue to trade barbs after unity talks break down, ahead of crucial announcement at 1 p.m. by Yisrael Beytenu chief

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival leaders of the centrist party Blue and White on Wednesday morning both called on Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman to join forces with them to form a government, once again affirming Liberman’s position as a kingmaker ahead of his crucial press statement planned for the afternoon.

Netanyahu and Gantz traded accusations late Tuesday night in statements issued shortly after the conclusion of a one-hour meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in which efforts for a unity government appeared to break down. Gantz’s mandate to form a coalition ends Wednesday night, kicking off a 21-day period during which a vote of 61 Knesset members can choose anyone from their midst to be prime minister and try to form a coalition. If that doesn’t happen, Israel will go to elections for the third time in under a year.

Officials in Yisrael Beytenu said that Liberman would announce his decision on whether to support either Gantz or Netanyahu, or neither, at a 1 p.m. faction meeting on Wednesday.

In a statement, the premier misrepresented an ultimatum Liberman issued earlier this month, in which he challenged Netanyahu and Gantz to accept tough compromises or he would back the other candidate and renege on his pledge to only support a national unity government.

“Unfortunately, last night in our meeting Benny Gantz refused to accept the condition posed by Avigdor Liberman — accepting the president’s proposal according to which I, as the sitting prime minister, will go first in the rotation for the premiership,” Netanyahu said in his statement, ignoring the proposal’s call for him to take a leave of absence if he is indicted.

“Liberman said he would go with the side that doesn’t refuse,” Netanyahu added. “Now all that is left is to see whether Avigdor Liberman is a man of his word.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) at a meeting of the 55-member union of his Likud party and other right-wing and religious parties, in the Knesset, November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Liberman’s ultimatum, in addition to demanding that Gantz “accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence,” called on Netanyahu to “say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc.” That was a reference to his 55-MK bloc of right-wing and religious lawmakers, who have been supporting him and conducting coalition negotiations as a group — in what has turned out to be a major obstacle to a unity government.

Blue and White has charged that Netanyahu intends to use the support of the bloc to try to secure immunity from prosecution in the three graft cases for which is facing a likely indictment.

Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has accepted fully the conditions posed by Liberman, who has not said what he would do if both reject his terms.

Netanyahu’s Likud party issued another statement Wednesday morning, calling on Liberman not to support a minority government backed by the Joint List. It continued the ruling party’s aggressive campaign against the predominantly Arab party despite President Reuven Rivlin rebuking the premier for “ugly” rhetoric the previous evening.

“On a day that Israel is fighting terror forces in our region, we hope Avigdor Liberman doesn’t lend his hand to a minority government that relies on terror supporters,” Likud said, referring to overnight strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.

Netanyahu and Gantz have traded barbs in recent days over the prospect of a Joint List-backed minority government, which the Blue and White leader has neither endorsed nor ruled out. On Sunday evening, Netanyahu’s Likud party organized an “emergency rally” that was aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.” There, the premier accused members of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country.” He claimed, without proof, that the Arab MKs support the Gaza terror organizations that Israel fought against last week.

Likud alleged in the statement that “Gantz told Prime Minister Netanyahu during their meeting that he intends to form a minority government propped up by the terror supporters. Gantz and Lapid brazenly lied to their voters when they said ‘we will not hold negotiations with the Arab parties.'”

There seemed to have been no indication from Blue and White before the elections that it wouldn’t hold talks with the Joint List.

Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid tweeted in a response to Netanyahu: “A new record. After he refused every unity offer we presented to him, Bibi is saying ‘Gantz refused.’ That man has no red lines.”

Blue and White party No. 2 MK Yair Lapid at a party faction meeting in the Knesset, October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Similarly calling on Liberman to support his side, Lapid added: “Liberman knows the truth. Bibi is glued to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc. He is leading to elections in full force.”

Gantz himself also attacked Netanyahu on Twitter: “This morning the truth has to be said — Benjamin Netanyahu is a unity refuser and will do everything to plunge us into elections for the third time in a year. Today I again call on Netanyahu: Acknowledge the election results… give up the immunity bloc and sit down for direct negotiations to determine the basic guidelines of the two largest parties.”

In a separate statement, Blue and White said: “On a day that Israel is taking action against terror forces in our region, Likud led by Netanyahu is not ceasing to use that for cynical politics. They should be ashamed.”

The centrist leader was tasked with cobbling together a coalition last month after Netanyahu failed to do so in the wake of the September elections.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Blue and White had wanted Netanyahu to commit to either forgoing a request for immunity from prosecution from the Knesset, or to agree to take a leave of absence if he is indicted — even if he received immunity.

Blue and White wanted Netanyahu to take the leave of absence six to eight months after any announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that he intends to indict the Likud leader, the report said.

Mandelblit is expected to announce by early next week whether he’ll charge Netanyahu in the three corruption cases against him.

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

Should Gantz fail to form a coalition by Wednesday at midnight, Knesset members have a further 21 days to choose another MK to be given the mandate to form a government, or decide to head back to elections — the third in less than a year.

Though Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, he could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman came on board, with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.

However, the odds of the staunchly right-wing Liberman — who has referred to Arab MKs as traitors and has suggested transferring Arab Israeli cities to the control of a future Palestinian state — doing so appear slim.

The two main sticking points in efforts to reach a unity government have been the right-wing bloc, which Netanyahu has refused to part with, and Blue and White’s refusal to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and Liberman met for the second time this week. The meeting was “positive and substantive and the two will continue in their efforts to form a unity government,” Likud and Yisrael Beytenu said in a joint statement.

Speaking after meeting with Gantz earlier Tuesday, Liberman said, “If by noon on Wednesday we have not reached an agreement then as far as I am concerned we have failed [at forming a unity government] and it’ll be every man for himself.”

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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