Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman may have failed in his efforts to push for a unity government, but on Wednesday he managed to unite lawmakers from right to left — in condemning him.
Liberman was attacked from all across the political spectrum following a fiery speech in which he blamed both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz for the failure to reach a unity government and ruled out joining a government with either the “anti-Zionist” ultra-Orthodox parties or the “fifth column” Arab lawmakers, signaling that Israel was headed for a third election in a year.
He said the ultra-Orthodox parties were “increasingly anti-Zionist,” and linked them in this regard with the largely Arab Joint List. And he implied that a prominent ultra-Orthodox sage was engaged in money laundering.
In his dramatic announcement just hours before Gantz’s mandate to form a government ends, the right-wing secularist leader announced that he would not support either a minority government headed by Gantz or a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu.
“There is no chance. We will not join either a narrow right- or left-wing government or a minority government. Whatever sort of government that would be, it would not survive and would not be able to function to do what is needed for the country,” Liberman told the packed Yisrael Beytenu faction room in the Knesset.
While Liberman has called Arabs “a fifth column” before, and drawn criticism for it, his attack on the ultra-Orthodox as “anti-Zionist” and part of an anti-Zionist alliance with Arab parties was new. His comments were carried live by most major Hebrew media outlets, including television channels which cut into their normal programming to broadcast the speech.
“We should say it as it is — the Joint List is really a fifth column. But unfortunately the Haredi parties are also becoming more and more anti-Zionist,” he charged. “It’s not just at the margins,” he said. Noting the arrival in Israel on Tuesday of the Satmar Rebbe, he said the sage “gave out millions of dollars” in an act of apparent “money laundering” that should be investigated by the tax authorities.
Responding to the speech, Haredi lawmakers referred to the Yisrael Beytenu leader as “anti-Semitic” and a “czar,” and to his speech as a “war crime” and a “horror show.”
“We don’t need to search for anti-Semitism abroad when Liberman announces a coup and third elections,” fumed United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler. “What Liberman said today about the ultra-Orthodox community is a war crime. He is using methods of the Russian czar, who said ‘Strike at the Jews and save Russia.'”
Eichler went as far as likening the speech to a 1903 anti-Semitic pogrom in Kishinev — modern day Chisinau in Moldova, where Liberman was born — in which 49 Jews were killed, more were raped and some 1,500 homes were pillaged.
“That is what they did to the Jews of Kishinev and that is what the Kishinev native is doing today,” he charged.
“A disgraceful ugly horror show… full of lies, ignorance and hatred. Unfortunately we can say that anti-Semitism has been rediscovered today,” said UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman at a faction meeting. “What he has said today is disgraceful.”
“We don’t remember this kind of anti-Semitism in the Knesset ever, even from [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi. He has done damage to this country, and he doesn’t know how to bow out respectfully,” MK Moshe Gafni said at the same meeting. “He needs to leave politics… he’s a nothing.”
Tibi, who was singled out along with Gafni in Liberman’s comments, said the Yisrael Beytenu head’s “incitement against the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox is pure racism and anti-Semitism. We will continue building bridges with the Haredi parties despite the differences of opinion.”
Labor-Gesher MK Merav Michaeli said Liberman had “upgraded Netanyahu’s concept to ‘minus Arabs and ultra-Orthodox.’ Arabs and ultra-Orthodox are part of Israeli society. The leaders of both communities should understand that this is the moment for them to cooperate with the liberal forces and form a government without Netanyahu.”
Likud faction chairman MK Miki Zohar said: “Unfortunately, Liberman’s speech takes us to third elections. His over-the-top lashing of the ultra-Orthodox slams the door on a right-wing government. If there was any chance of a compromise with them, that has moved farther away because of his decision to aggressively attack them.”
However, Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) praised Liberman for ruling out a minority government with backing by the Joint List, calling on Benny Gantz to renew efforts for a unity government.
New Right’s Ayelet Shaked said that dragging Israel to third elections is “political madness. I hope my fellow political leaders will take responsibility for this crisis, there is a solution. Everyone needs to compromise a bit.”
National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich said: “Liberman was and has remained a spin doctor who is only focused on himself.”
Should Gantz fail to form a coalition by Wednesday at midnight, a 21-day period will begin in which 61 Knesset members can support any lawmaker to be prime minister. If that doesn’t happen, the country will head back to elections.
Raoul Wootliff, Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.