Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman said a unity government was no longer a question, after meeting with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz ahead of talks between the two prime ministerial candidates initiated by President Reuven Rivlin and set to take place Monday evening.
Liberman said the only point of contention remaining between Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was who would lead the unity government as prime minister first.
Netanyahu and Gantz both lack majority support to form a government, after Rivlin consulted over the past two days with parties elected to the Knesset in last week’s elections.
Liberman has refrained from recommending either one as a candidate for prime minister.
The secularist Yisrael Beytenu leader campaigned on forcing a unity government between his party, Likud and Blue and White if neither could build a coalition without him and now holds the balance of power in the Knesset with Gantz and Netanyahu likely needing his support to secure a ruling majority.
Following their meeting, Gantz and Liberman put out near identical statements saying they “exchanged views and perspectives,” without elaborating.
“If necessary, we’ll speak again later on,” the statements said.
Hours after the meeting, Liberman said he stressed to Gantz that for him “there is only one option on the table” — a unity government of Yisrael Beytenu, Likud and Blue and White.
Liberman wrote on Facebook that he was pleased Blue and White and Likud “internalized” the need for a unity government with a rotating premiership, referring to Rivlin’s hosting of talks between Netanyahu and Gantz
“The entire argument right now revolves around the question who should serve as prime minister first and who second. I hope that President Rivlin succeeds in bridging between sides and a decision will be made on the matter,” he said.
Liberman also rejected sitting in a government with “the ultra-Orthodox, the messianists [Yamina], the Joint List or the Democratic Camp”; he did not rule out the center-left Labor-Gesher party.
Liberman has not met with Netanyahu since the September 17 elections.
“There are no contacts with Liberman. Everyone knows what his aim is and no direct contact has been made with him so far,” Channel 13 news quoted Netanyahu saying at a Likud faction meeting Monday.
Netanyahu also reportedly said his party sought to send Liberman a message asking him not to vote against the reappointment of Likud MK Yuli Edelstein as Knesset Speaker.
The Haaretz daily reported last week that Blue and White was looking to replace Edelstein with a lawmaker of its own choosing, as it fears a Knesset speaker loyal to Netanyahu could thwart its legislative agenda.
Edelstein was re-elected to the post after elections in April, but Netanyahu failed to form a majority government and in May and dissolved the Knesset, meaning the post will be up for grabs again in the new government.
In last week’s election Gantz’s Blue and White emerged as the larger party according to almost-final results, at 33 seats, while incumbent premier Netanyahu’s Likud won 31. Netanyahu heads a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 44 centrist and left-wing MKs. With most of the Joint List backing him, the Blue and White leader has the support of at least 54 members of Knesset, but the Arab alliance has said it will not join a coalition. Yisrael Beytenu, with eight seats, holds the balance of power between the blocs.
Liberman said during the election campaign he would back for prime minister whichever candidate supported his proposed unity government, but on Sunday refrained from recommending Netanyahu or Gantz. The Yisrael Beytenu head faulted Netanyahu for refusing to break with his right-wing religious allies and charged Gantz with keeping open the option of a coalition with the Joint List alliance of mostly Arab parties and ultra-Orthodox parties.
In a Facebook post Sunday, Liberman casually suggested Gantz and Netanyahu “flip a coin” on who gets to be prime minister first under a rotation deal, urging them to drop their “childish” dispute and forge a national unity government.
“As we promised the public, Yisrael Beytenu will do everything to force the two largest parties to form a broad liberal government,” he wrote. “What stands between the formation of a government and new elections is a childish argument between Netanyahu and Gantz over who will be prime minister first.
Rivlin will decide which candidate to task with assembling the next coalition by next week after wrapping up his meetings with party leaders on Monday.
Last Tuesday’s election was called after a previous round of elections in April did not result in a government. The Knesset was dissolved in late May and a new vote called after Liberman conditioned his entry into Netanyahu’s government on the advancement of a law regulating the military draft for ultra-Orthodox students — a demand rejected by the Haredi political parties.
His refusal to enter the coalition, precipitating new elections, drew a furious response from his ally-turned-foe Netanyahu.