Rivlin: 'I'll do all i can to prevent repeat elections'

Hours before deadline, Likud accuses Liberman of seeking to replace Netanyahu

With clock ticking for Netanyahu to build a coalition, compromise seems off the table, as Knesset debates dissolution bill to call new elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (front) and former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sit in the Knesset, May 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (front) and former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sit in the Knesset, May 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

As the Knesset prepared to vote to dissolve parliament and call new elections if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to lock down a government by a midnight deadline, coalition negotiations appeared to have entirely collapsed Wednesday afternoon, with the sides digging in on their demands and blaming each other for the deadlock.

Netanyahu has yet to ink a coalition deal with any of his prospective partners. The stalemate revolves around Yisrael Beytenu Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft for Haredi men.

Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the bill that passed its first reading last July, during the previous Knesset.

That version of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting regarding the coalition negotiations at the Knesset, on May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sources in the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said Wednesday afternoon that there will be no more talks with Liberman on the issue, Kan news reported.

Speaking in the Knesset, Liberman reiterated his vow to only join the government if his version of the bill is accepted in full, urging the ultra-Orthodox parties to “use your reason” and allow the law to pass “even without voting for it.”

With the deadline hours away, Netanyahu’s Likud party has intensified its attacks on Liberman, accusing him of leading the country to repeat elections for his own political gain.

A Likud source accused Liberman of “deceiving” the public in order “to destroy Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and then supplant him” after elections.

“He says of any offer ‘We might consider it,’ stalls for a few days and then rejects it,” the source said of failed negotiations between the sides over the contentious conscription law. “Liberman, who always made deals with the ultra-Orthodox parties… is suddenly painting himself as the representative of the secular vote. For a few [more] seats and a hunger for power Liberman is dragging the entire country to elections.”

Senior Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin told Channel 12 news that Liberman had no real intention to join the coalition.

“He asks that the Haredim compromise 100 percent. He knows that in negotiations, that will lead to them blowing up,” Elkin said.

Earlier, Elkin told Army Radio that “Liberman can no longer be considered part of the right-wing bloc.”

Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, speaks at the Jerusalem Center for Public and State Issues, on September 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

He warned that if elections are held, the right will punish Liberman by excluding him from a future government.

In response to Likud accusations, Yisrael Beytenu said it “laments the style and language of briefings coming from the Prime Minister’s Office.”

The party said it has always been clear and consistent in its demands.

“From the very first moment [of coalition talks] Yisrael Beytenu warned there was only one option: completing legislation [of the ultra-Orthodox draft law] in its second and third readings in the same wording of the first reading,” the party said of the bill opposed by Haredi factions.

“Anything else is spin and a misleading of the public.” the statement added

Hitting back at Elkin, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer said that Likud had abandoned its ethos and was selling out to the ultra-Orthodox.

“The party that I know is disappearing,” Forer said, also speaking to Army Radio. “The behavior of its members in the negotiations has shown that this is not the Likud of the national camp, but one that sells out on everything just for another minute in power.”

Amid the crisis, parties not involved in the coalition talks threatened to filibuster the Knesset session to foil the dissolution and enable the possibility of another lawmaker being given a shot at coalition-building. Lawmakers were debating the proposal in the Knesset since noon.

Theoretically, the Likud-drafted motion to dissolve the Knesset could be pulled at any time before the final vote if a compromise to the coalition crisis is found. The prime minister has until midnight to announce a new coalition, and his bid to call elections — the second national ballot in a matter of months — seemed geared to prevent the president from tasking someone else with forming a government.

The opposition has said it will filibuster the Knesset debate on the dissolution bill to prevent it coming up for its final votes before the expiration of the midnight deadline for Netanyahu to announce a coalition. At that point, President Rivlin could tap another prospective prime minister. The coalition, however, has the power to limit the opposition’s debate time under Knesset regulations.

Rivlin, meanwhile, released a video saying that he “will do everything in my power to prevent Israel from heading toward another election campaign.”

Explaining the process should Netanyahu fail to form a government and should the dissolution bill fail to pass, Rivlin noted: “If the government is not formed by midnight tonight I have two options and I must take one of them within three days. The first option is to entrust any other Knesset member, except for a Knesset member who has already had the opportunity and has not succeeded. The second option is to inform the Speaker of the Knesset that there is no possibility of forming a government and that there is no alternative to calling elections.”

President Reuven Rivlin speaks during an Independence Day event at his official residence in Jerusalem on May 9, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“Incidentally,” he added “you should know that if I inform the Knesset Speaker that I do not believe another Knesset member could form a government, Knesset members can collect 61 signatures and request that any one of the 120 members of Knesset, including those who have already had the opportunity, be given the mandate to form a government.”

He acknowledged that if the Knesset passes a dissolution bill — as it may well do before the day is done — there will be no alternative to holding a new national vote.

Holding another election so soon after the previous national vote, on April 9, would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.

AFP contributed to this report.

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