Lapid denies covert talks with Liberman on ‘unity government’ with Likud

Blue and White’s no. 2 doubles down on vow to ’embitter’ the lives of Netanyahu’s coalition

Blue and White's Yair Lapid on March 31, 2019 (Saria Diamant/Blue and White).
Blue and White's Yair Lapid on March 31, 2019 (Saria Diamant/Blue and White).

Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid denied on Saturday reports that suggested covert talks were underway with Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman on a possible unity government together with the Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu party.

Reports in the Hebrew media in recent days said Lapid met with Liberman in Vienna to discuss joining forces for a coalition that would include the Likud’s 36 seats, Blue and White’s 35, Yisrael Beytenu’s five seats, and Kulanu’s four for an overwhelming 80 Knesset seats. This formation would leave out the ultra-Orthodox parties of Shas and UTJ and the Union of Right-Wing Parties to push forward with proposed legislation they strongly oppose.

Netanyahu has declared his intention to establish a right-wing government following his fifth election victory this week. In his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Netanyahu specified that while he would aim to serve as the prime minister of all Israelis, “right and left, Jewish and non-Jewish,” he would put together a right-wing government with the 15 MKs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, plus five from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, four from Kulanu and five from Yisrael Beytenu, giving him 65 seats in the 120-member parliament.

“I’m not sure the chances that there is a high chance” of a unity government,” Likud minister Yuval Steinitz said Saturday, noting both Netanyahu’s promise to build a rightist coalition and that unity governments “tend to be unstable.”

Speculation on Lapid and Liberman’s meeting began after the elections on Tuesday, when they were said to have flown to Vienna, sparking the rumors of a secret meeting.

Ynet reported Saturday that Lapid and his wife were in Paris and had not traveled to Vienna. Sources close to Lapid told the Hebrew news site that Lapid “did not stop or arrive in Vienna.”

In a Facebook post published on Saturday, Lapid reiterated his promise to “embitter the government’s life” while in the opposition.

In a speech on Wednesday conceding the election race to the Likud, Lapid vowed that Blue and White would strongly resist a Netanyahu-led government’s policies from the opposition.

“The days are over when the opposition just tried to crawl into the government,” said Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party that merged with Gantz to form Blue and White has served in the opposition since 2015.

In the Facebook post, Lapid said he “meant every word.”

“In the face of injustice, of corruption, and the neglect of the weak, we will absolutely embitter their lives, because that is the role of an opposition [force],” he wrote.

“If they do good things for the people of Israel, we will be happy to help them,” he added.

The post came a day after a Channel 12 report claimed there was “a readiness” by the Likud party to consider a more moderate “unity government” with Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.

“There is a three-sided readiness” for “a real unity government,” Channel 12 TV’s political analyst Amnon Abramovich claimed, setting out what he said were terms that Lapid had prepared for discussion with Liberman as the first stage of negotiation over the idea.

Lapid himself responded to the TV report by saying he is “personally opposed to sitting in a government with Netanyahu.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, left, speaks with Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset on May 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Liberman, for his part, has not publicly committed to joining a Likud government with the ultra-Orthodox parties and URWP. His secular agenda — which includes compelling more ultra-Orthodox males to do IDF service, introducing civil marriage and allowing more public transportation on the Sabbath — is completely contrary to the demands they will make. Netanyahu would have a 60-strong coalition without him, which would be an awkward but not impossible way to govern, since Liberman, even in opposition, would not vote with the Arab parties to bring down a right-wing government.

According to the TV report, Lapid’s alleged proposal included advancing Liberman’s secular agenda, parts of which he supports, and taking a less hawkish stance on the imminent Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal from US President Donald Trump. It would also be able to maintain better relations with non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews than a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition.

The unsourced TV report seems highly improbable, although the very idea that Netanyahu might contemplate a unity government could help him negotiate a right-wing coalition from a stronger position if the ultra-Orthodox parties and URWP believe there is even a remote prospect that he might opt for the unity course.

Gantz specified repeatedly before the elections that his party would not sit in government with Netanyahu. The TV report claimed Lapid’s proposal instead accepts the idea of partnering with Netanyahu even if he is indicted in the three corruption cases where he faces charges pending a hearing.

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside Blue and White party leaders, from left to right, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019. Hebrew on billboards reads, left, ‘A strong Likud, a strong Israel,’ and on the right, ‘Every vote counts, Blue and White victory.’ (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Kahlon, who also said before the elections that Netanyahu could not stay on as prime minister if indicted, is reported to be negotiating a merger of Kulanu with Likud, and to now accept the idea of Netanyahu staying on even if charged — as the prime minister would be allowed to do under existing law.

Reports in recent days have indicated that Liberman is seeking the job of defense minister in the new coalition — a post he held until quitting last November in protest at what he said was Netanyahu’s unduly soft policy on confronting Hamas in Gaza.

Next week, President Reuven Rivlin will begin the formal process that will lead to him asking Netanyahu to form the next government. Rivlin may well issue a call for unity, but the election results are so decisively in Netanyahu’s favor that the president cannot do more than issue a general plea to that effect.

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