Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman were locked in a game of political chicken on Monday, with the Likud party poised to take the first step toward triggering new elections, and the former defense minister showing no signs he would soften his demands, join the government, and avert sending Israelis to the polls.
The Likud party said it would bring a proposal to dissolve the Knesset to Israel’s parliament for the first of three votes on Monday afternoon, putting pressure on potential coalition parties to reach an agreement or face another election.
In response, Liberman said he would back the bill in its first reading on Monday afternoon, as the impasse between the right-wing parties showed no sign of waning.
The bill would require two more votes before another election — the second in a matter of months — could be called.
Netanyahu faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a coalition. But should he fail to build a coalition by then, Netanyahu may be able to buy himself another 14 more days, exercising a never-before-used legal provision, analysts say.
The prime minister announced Sunday that he would be making a final push to form a right-wing government, as squabbles among his potential coalition partners raised the specter of fresh elections.
He invited the leaders of each of his potential coalition partner parties to meet with him personally at his office in Jerusalem, but Liberman would not show up.
In a video posted to his social media accounts, Netanyahu said he was making a “last-ditch effort to form a right-wing government and prevent unnecessary elections.”
Referring to Yisrael Beytenu, along with the Shas and United Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox parties, the premier said he has offered his likely coalition partners a proposal for a solution in the main sticking point — the terms of legislation regulating exemptions from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.
“It is based on the principles established by the army and on the data that the army has determined,” Netanyahu said. “There is no reason to reject this [proposal].”
“I’m going to invite all party leaders [for a meeting] tonight,” he added. “I want to talk to them so we can try together to prevent unnecessary elections.”
Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners. The sticking point is a bill on the ultra-Orthodox military draft, which the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] parties seek to soften, and which must swiftly be re-legislated under Supreme Court order. Liberman, meanwhile, has insisted he will not budge from a Defense Ministry-drafted version of the bill regulating the number of ultra-Orthodox seminary students drafted into the military.
Liberman, who has clashed with ultra-Orthodox parties over the army draft legislation and has repeatedly declared he will not give up on his demand that the proposed bill be passed without any alternations, told Channel 12 news, “My positions are clear, there is nothing to talk about.”
It was the second time Liberman has refused to answer Netanyahu’s summons for a meeting in Jerusalem — last Thursday he also skipped a gathering of prospective coalition partners called by the prime minister.
Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority.
A senior political insider, familiar with the coalition talks, told The Times of Israel on Sunday that there was “a 95 percent chance” that Netanyahu would ultimately finalize his coalition. But he added, “This is Israeli politics. Anything can happen.”
On Sunday evening, a senior Likud official said that Liberman was the only party leader who had refused to sign on to Netanyahu’s compromise proposal.
“The ball is now in Liberman’s court,” the official said. “If he agrees, there will be a right-wing government already tonight.”
The Shas party issued a statement pointing out that bills often go through alterations even after passing a first reading in the Knesset, and accusing Liberman of using the army draft legislation as an excuse to foil a coalition.
“The public knows that there is almost no bill by a ministry or committee that passes a second or third reading without changes or adjustments. Therefore, when someone said, ‘I won’t change a comma or a word in the bill,’ especially in a bill as complicated as this, it is clear that he isn’t interested in a solution or significant discussion but all he wants is to prevent establishing a government.”
Liberman has offered his own solution to the standoff, suggesting that ultra-Orthodox legislators could leave the Knesset plenum if and when the draft law was finally approved, “just as they did when it passed its first reading,” in the last Knesset.
In an apparent attempt by Netanyahu’s Likud party to signal that it is prepared for the possibility that it will fail to bridge the gap between Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties, the prime minister earlier Sunday directed Likud MK Miki Zohar, the chairman of the House Committee, to introduce a bill to dissolve the Knesset.
Most political analysts still maintain that Netanyahu will manage to persuade all five potential coalition parties — UTJ, Shas, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — to join his Likud, in a 65-strong coalition ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.
If that does not happen, and the Knesset is not dissolved, President Reuven Rivlin will have to decide whether to task another Knesset member with forming the next coalition. Since the prevailing assessment is that nobody else would be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario too would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, months after the April 9 vote.
In the event that the sides are not able to reach an agreement and new elections are called, Netanyahu told Likud ministers on Sunday that their party will run on a joint list with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.