Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu ink vote-sharing deal, drawing fire
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Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu ink vote-sharing deal, drawing fire

Liberman insists move only technical, not a sign of ideology, after Likud slams right-wing faction for forging deal with centrists pushing to unseat Netanyahu

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman (R) speaks with Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid at the Knesset on November 16, 2015. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman (R) speaks with Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid at the Knesset on November 16, 2015. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

The Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu parties signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement Monday, drawing instant rebuke from both left and right.

The move appeared to cement ties between Avgidor Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beytenu and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, which are expected to attempt to forge a unity government after elections and may try to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both factions were criticized for appearing to cross the aisle, though Liberman described the agreement as nothing more than a “technical matter.”

Vote-sharing agreements, which are widely used in Israeli elections, allow parties to ensure that extra votes that don’t add up to enough for another Knesset seat don’t go to waste.  Instead a party is permitted to share these votes through a special agreement with another party.

Agreements are usually signed between parties that are politically or ideologically close, though Liberman noted that in the past his party had been willing to forge deals on the right or left.

“In the previous election campaign, we signed with the New Right party which did not pass the threshold. In 1999, we signed a surplus agreement with [then- and now-Labor leader] Amir Peretz and earned a seat,” Liberman said.

“Technically, now there is no other option left, and we are not prepared to risk the loss of a mandate that can be obtained thanks to the surplus agreement,” he added.

Blue and White confirmed the deal had been signed.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman holds a press conference following the dissolving of the Knesset, and ahead of the new elections, in Tel Aviv, on May 30, 2019. (Flash90)

Under law, the combined leftover votes go to the party closest to winning another seat, and are often enough to add that seat to its tally, making them potentially decisive in a close race.

Likud and Blue and White are neck-and-neck in most polls over the past month, and whichever party emerges the larger could win the first chance to form the next coalition.

As expected, Likud lashed out at Liberman over the deal, accusing him of confirming his intentions to try and unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The party has been harshly critical of Liberman for refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition after the last round of voting and for not giving outright backing to the prime minister in this round, drawing accusations of a drift to the left.

“I say this with sorrow, but today it’s official: Liberman is shifting right-wing votes to a left-wing government,” Netanyahu said in a video statement from Ukraine, where he was wrapping up a two-day visit.

“[Liberman] already said he’ll recommend Gantz head the government… whoever wants a left-wing government headed by [Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz, should vote Liberman,” the prime minister added.

Liberman has not explicitly stated he would recommend that Gantz be tasked with forming a government after the elections, saying he would endorse for premier whoever backs a unity government between Yisrael Beytenu, Likud and Blue and White — something ruled out by Netanyahu.

Likud earlier put out its own statement condemning Liberman for the surplus-vote deal.

“The cat is out of the bag. Liberman signed a surplus agreement with [Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz, after he publicly declared that he would support Gantz and Lapid for prime minister. Anyone who wants Netanyahu as prime minister must vote for Likud,” the ruling party said .

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, July 7, 2019. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio that “there’s nothing technical about the agreement.”

Likud, which signed an agreement with Union of Right-Wing Parties for the last elections, has yet to ink any such deal this time around.

Liberman’s party, which counts Russian-speakers as its main constituency, has been considered solidly on the right, though it takes a secularist approach to matters of religion and state, placing it on a collision course with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners.

Liberman, seen as ultra-hawkish on defense matters, hit back by slamming Likud for its recent approach to tensions on the Gaza border.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, at a 2013 Knesset committee meeting (Photo credit: FLASH90)

“All those who have decided to surrender to terrorism from the Gaza Strip and pay Hamas protection money, and those who are silent in the face of the destruction and humiliation of Israeli deterrence, are not allowed to speak for the right and are not part of the national camp in Israel,” he said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the left-wing Democratic Camp accused Blue and White of “sacrificing its values” by teaming up with the right-wing Liberman.

“Blue and White raised a white flag [of surrender] because it failed to understand” that the upcoming elections are do-or-die, the party said in a statement.

Surveys have consistently shown both the Gantz-led center-left and Netanyahu-led religious-right several seats short of a coalition without Yisrael Beytenu, placing Liberman as a potential kingmaker.

Yisrael Beytenu’s campaign has centered on Liberman’s demand for a secular-led unity coalition of Likud, Blue and White and his own party — a demand that has seen him double in size in polls, from Yisrael Beytenu’s April showing of five seats to a consistent showing of 10 in numerous surveys, as Russian-speaking and secular Israelis flock to his banner.

Liberman repeated his call for a unity government in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday. “The first side that commits to a unity government — we will support him. We won’t join any narrow government, neither Netanyahu’s nor Gantz’s,” he vowed.

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