As the prospect of new elections loomed on Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upped the pressure on Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, and urged him to reconsider his refusal to join his coalition under the current terms.
Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.
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.
“A month and a half ago the people voted in favor of a right-wing government headed by me,” Netanyahu said in a statement to the press in the Knesset in Jerusalem, referring to the April 9 elections. “I’m making all efforts to prevent unnecessary and wasteful elections that will cost billions of shekels. There’s no reason to do so and paralyze the country for another half a year. There are excellent solutions, and if there’s a will [the crisis] can be solved within two minutes.”
He said the specific dispute over the ultra-Orthodox draft bill was a matter of “cosmetics” and “semantics” that by no means justified a resort to new elections. “You don’t hold elections over cosmetics,” he said.
“Unfortunately, to this day I haven’t been able to convince Avigdor Liberman to join the coalition and avert elections,” he said.
Netanyahu cited a tweet earlier in the day by Donald Trump, in which the US president expressed hope that the Israeli premier would manage to form a coalition, since there was still “much left to do” in strengthening the countries’ ties.
“He’s right,” Netanyahu said. “We do have many challenges in the economy, social issues and the alliance with the United States.”
Earlier, the parliament in a preliminary vote passed a decision dissolving the Knesset, with 65 lawmakers voting in favor of the decision, 43 opposing it, and six MKs abstaining.
The Likud-spearheaded bill — which had to be submitted as a private member bill, since there is no government — requires three more rounds of voting to trigger snap elections, which would tentatively be held on September 17.
Holding two elections at such a short interval would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.
“Have we become what Italy once was?” Netanyahu lamented. “We’re Israel. We’re strong, we’re democratic. I hope the benefit of the state will trump any other consideration or interest.”
“It isn’t too late,” he added. “I will act in the coming days in any way possible to form a new government. I call on Liberman to reconsider his position.”
He then took a swipe at Liberman, who in April 2016 boasted that if he were to be appointed defense minister, Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Gaza-based Hamas terror group, would be assassinated by Israel within 48 hours. After his appointment as defense minister a few weeks later, Liberman failed to deliver on that promise, drawing widespread derision.
“There are still 48 hours left” until the coalition deadline, Netanyahu prodded Liberman. “A lot can be done in 48 hours.”
However, Liberman rebuffed the pressure and rejected Netanyahu’s appeal. “This isn’t about cosmetic changes [to the draft bill], it is about caving to the ultra-Orthodox,” he tweeted.
Shortly after that statement, a Likud spokesperson said that after assessing the situation, the ruling party’s ministers and MKs had been given approval to “fire at will” and launch public attacks on Liberman.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu and Liberman met for talks in an effort to reach a last-ditch deal, but that 22-minute meeting ended without a breakthrough.
The Blue and White party, which has vowed that it will not join a government led by Netanyahu, has 35 Knesset seats, the same number as Likud. On Monday, its leader, Benny Gantz, said that if Netanyahu cannot form a government, he should be given a chance.
The centrist party has no clear path to forming a government, as it has ruled out an alliance with Arab lawmakers, and ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties have said they will not join a Blue and White government.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together with Likud, 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 faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a coalition. But should he fail to build a coalition by then or dissolve the Knesset, the prime minister may be able to buy himself another 14 more days, exercising a never-before-used legal provision, analysts say.
As the deadline expires — and should the Knesset remain intact — Rivlin would be able to task another lawmaker with forming the government. But since the prevailing assessment is that nobody else would be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario too would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, months after the April 9 vote.
In October, the prime minister will have a hearing to answer pending charges of fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases and bribery in one.
Marissa Newman and AFP contributed to this report.