Hours before election deadline, Liberman slams Netanyahu’s ‘slander’

Vowing not to bend on his demand for secularist unity government, Yisrael Beytenu leader signals new elections all but inevitable

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman speaks to press while touring the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman speaks to press while touring the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Just hours before the 22nd Knesset appeared set to give up the ghost Wednesday night and dissolve itself to yet another election, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman lashed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “an uptick in slander, distortions and deliberately malicious narratives directed against me personally and against my family and close friends.”

The statement detailed at length the reasons Liberman has refused to join a Netanyahu-led rightist-Haredi government, and suggested that no last-minute healing of the breach between Yisrael Beytenu and Likud is likely to be announced Wednesday, all but ensuring a third round of elections in early March.

The slanderous statements, Liberman charged in a Facebook post, “are being produced in the house on Balfour Street,” a reference to the official Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Lawmakers have until Wednesday night to agree to nominate a Knesset member to attempt to put together a government before being forced to dissolve the parliament and call an unprecedented third round of elections for March 2.

Liberman, a right-wing secularist who holds eight of the Knesset’s 120 seats, has refused to enter a coalition that does not include both Likud and Blue and White, though Likud has continued to try to woo him separately. He campaigned on a unity government ahead of the elections in September and has continued to push for such an arrangement amid the ongoing deadlock in coalition talks.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Jordan valley, southern Israel on September 15, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Netanyahu’s first-ever failure to form a government came after the April election when Liberman, in a surprise move, refused to sit in a Netanyahu-led rightist-Haredi coalition unless it delivered the passage of an ultra-Orthodox military enlistment law and reforms on religion-and-state issues.

Promising not to budge on those issues, and vowing to force Likud and Blue and White to join together in a secularist unity government, Liberman saw his party rewarded by voters, jumping from five seats in the April race to eight in September’s.

Netanyahu and his Likud party, meanwhile, have accused Liberman of “betraying” the right.

On Wednesday, as Liberman’s continued refusal to join a right-wing majority coalition — and Netanyahu and Gantz’s continued refusal to compromise on their coalition demands — appeared set to push the country to yet another election, Liberman pointed out that he was doing exactly what he’d promised voters.

“Even though, since the start of the campaign for the 22nd Knesset [beginning in June], I have been clear that Yisrael Beytenu would only support a unity government, and even though I’ve tried to be respectful and responsible, again and again we’ve heard the prime minister’s spokespeople deliver their ‘explanation’ for my refusal to join a Haredi-messianic government led by Netanyahu. The explanation: ‘Liberman is being extorted by the police and prosecution, is afraid of being investigated, and is now protected by the legal system,'” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman sign a coalition agreement in the Knesset on May 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu, who is up against criminal charges in three corruption investigations, has accused the state prosecution of inventing trumped-up corruption charges to bring him down. He has called for the country to “investigate the investigators.”

Liberman has been involved in his own corruption investigations over the years, and was forced to step down as foreign minister from 2012 to 2013 while he faced a possible indictment. The cases against him were all eventually closed.

“I’ve been through more than a few investigations,” he wrote Wednesday, “and I’ve never been frightened by them, never hid behind [parliamentary] immunity, paid my legal bills myself, and instead of asking friends [for money], took a loan from the bank,” Liberman added, a reference to Netanyahu’s believed plans to seek immunity and the funding of his legal bills by overseas financiers.

He reminded Netanyahu of his own call for former premier Ehud Olmert to resign when he faced corruption charges a decade earlier.

“If I wanted to attack you, Mr. Prime Minister, in the most sensitive place, I’d remind you what you said in 2008 about a different prime minister, Ehud Olmert.”

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on February 10, 2016 (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

Netanyahu, as opposition leader at the time, said of Olmert: “This is a prime minister neck-deep in investigations, and he doesn’t have the public or moral mandate to make such fateful decisions for the state of Israel. There is a concern, and I have to say a real one, not unfounded, that he’ll make decisions based on his personal interest in his own political survival — his interest and not the national interest, because he’s in this special sort of deep distress.”

Liberman went on to accuse Netanyahu’s political aides of spreading claims that “Liberman is being managed by mysterious elements from overseas” and “Liberman is an agent of chaos,” in order to explain his refusal to join a rightist government.

“Maybe you’re an agent of mysterious and wealthy elements from various places in the world, Mr. Prime Minister?” he shot back, a reference to Netanyahu’s many wealthy overseas benefactors over the years, including those whose names figure prominently in his corruption charge sheets, such as Sheldon Adelson, Arnon Milchan, James Packer and others.

He concluded by vowing that “without fundamental changes on issues of religion and state, like public transportation on Shabbat, civil marriage, the Haredi IDF draft and conversion by local rabbis, we won’t join your government.”

The statement comes a day after Liberman praised his party for refusing a long list of political posts offered by Netanyahu “if we agree to a narrow government, contrary to our promise to voters.”

Aryeh Deri (left), leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, seen with head of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman at the “Sheva Brachot” of Deri’s daughter. December 23, 2015. (Yaacov Cohen/FLASH90)

“Needless to say, we rejected all of these suggestions outright,” Liberman wrote in a Facebook post.

Liberman also attacked Netanyahu and his main challenger, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, saying any failure to form a government was due to their “egos.”

“If a government is not formed in the next 24 hours, it is solely because the leaders of the two major parties, Likud and Blue and White, were unwilling to set aside their egos and could not reach an agreement on who will serve first as prime minister and when there will be a rotation,” he said.

On Monday, Netanyahu appealed to Liberman to enter 11th-hour negotiations with his Likud party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of the Right-wing parties bloc at the Knesset on November 20, 2019. Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I call on Avigdor Liberman to enter into accelerated negotiations in the 48 hours left to establish a broad, strong unity government for Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Liberman rejected Netanyahu’s appeal several hours later, during a meeting with mayors and local council leaders from the Likud party. The footage from the closed meeting was published by the Walla news site.

Neither Gantz’s Blue and White nor Likud has enough allies to form a government without the other or the support of Yisrael Beytenu, but the two parties have failed to make progress on unity efforts.

Netanyahu has refused to step down and insisted on being prime minister for several months at the start of a rotational agreement, but Gantz has refused to sit in a government under Netanyahu until the premier’s legal status is cleared up.

On Monday, Gantz called on Netanyahu to forgo his expected bid to seek immunity from prosecution and enter a unity government instead.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman speak to reporters after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Likud officials shot down Gantz’s offer, saying seeking immunity was “an explicit right given by the legislature,” Channel 12 news reported.

Meanwhile, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said that he would give up on a rotation agreement for the premiership with Gantz, as he sought to bolster the party’s chances in the increasingly likely upcoming election.

In a statement released by his office, Netanyahu accused Blue and White’s leaders of “transparent tricks” and “empty spins.”

Blue and White said in response to the premier’s statement: “The only thing that is transparent is Netanyahu’s desire to lead Israel to an additional round of elections with the sole purpose of seeking immunity. Netanyahu, set Israel free [from yourself].”

Both Gantz and Netanyahu have said that they seek a unity deal, but observers see a third round of elections as all but inevitable. On Monday, the parties agreed that, if called, the elections would be held on March 2.

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