Amid standoff with Liberman, Likud says it’s bracing for snap elections

Amid standoff with Liberman, Likud says it’s bracing for snap elections

Netanyahu says sending Israelis to the polls again would be ‘unfortunate,’ insists the deadlock in talks could be resolved; Yisrael Beytenu accuses ruling party of ‘lying’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and incoming defense minister Avigdor Liberman (left) hold a press conference in the Knesset, May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and incoming defense minister Avigdor Liberman (left) hold a press conference in the Knesset, May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said it would be “unfortunate” to put Israelis through another election campaign, as his Likud party said it was bracing for snap polls if no compromise could be reached with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the coming days to persuade him to enter the next government.

Four days before the deadline to form a coalition, 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 political parties seek to soften, and which must swiftly be re-legislated under Supreme Court order. Liberman, meanwhile, has insisted he won’t budge from the Defense Ministry-drafted version of the bill regulating the number of ultra-Orthodox seminary students drafted to the military.

Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) 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.

Netanyahu on Sunday told reporters that with “goodwill” the deadlock in talks with Liberman could be resolved.

“It’s unfortunate. I don’t think we need to drag the country through another election, but perhaps there is someone who wants that,” said Netanyahu at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

As reports in Hebrew media signaled that Likud was poised to open its campaign headquarters and cancel its party primaries in anticipation of a new election, the right-wing party said it was preparing for such a scenario but still held out hope for a breakthrough.

Supporters of Likud wave party and national flags along with a sign showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they gather at the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is formulating a solution that will allow for the establishment of a right-wing government with the [military] draft law,” Likud said.

“At the same time, in the event Liberman continues to insist on felling the government, Likud will start preparing for elections,” it added.

Netanyahu’s party also denied reports it would seek to dissolve the nascent government on Monday, saying no decision had been made on the issue.

In a statement, Liberman dismissed the reports, while calling for Likud to stop “lying.”

“I turn to the Likud members: Stop lying to the people of Israel and telling them that Yisrael Beytenu is looking for excuses not to enter the government,” he wrote on Facebook. “Commit to passing the draft law in its second and third readings [into law] in the original version, and you’ll see it all work out. Try us.”

Liberman said on Saturday that his party would endorse no other candidate for prime minister except Benjamin Netanyahu, but also that Israel may be headed for fresh elections unless the ruling Likud party agrees to a number of Yisrael Beytenu’s core demands, chiefly by passing the so-called Haredi draft bill.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Liberman on Saturday said he had been approached by members of Likud to join a government without the premier, a claim quickly denied by the ruling party.

Without Yisrael Beytenu, Likud could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman and his party did not vote against such a coalition.

However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon ruled out such a possibility during a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu and other party leaders, Hebrew-language media reported. Kahlon, head of the four-seat Kulanu, said such a government would have trouble functioning and would quickly unravel, according to the Haaretz daily.

Liberman boycotted Thursday’s meeting, during which Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners vowed to push ahead with attempts to form a government.

Most political analysts on Thursday still assessed that Netanyahu would manage to persuade all five other 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 doesn’t happen, 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 will be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, months after the April 9 vote.

Coalition talks will continue Sunday, with Likud representatives meeting the URWP team at 12 p.m.

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