Liberman appears to drop unity coalition demand, is willing to partner with left

Kingmaker Yisrael Beytenu chair says he’s not opposed to serving with Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance; says it’s clear that Likud-Blue and White government won’t happen

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, right and Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman give a joint statement to the media after a meeting for coalition negotiations at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, right and Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman give a joint statement to the media after a meeting for coalition negotiations at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman on Thursday said he wouldn’t rule out sitting in a government with the leftist Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance after the coming national elections and appeared to drop his previous demand for a unity government of the Likud and Blue and White parties.

Liberman — whose policies on religion and state are in line with those of Labor-Gesher-Meretz, but whose hawkish views on security and relations with the Palestinians are in stark contrast — recalled to Army Radio that he has in the past sat around the cabinet table with Labor party leader MK Amir Peretz, and that Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abekasis was once a member of his Yisrael Beytenu party.

“I sat in a government with Peretz and I had no problem getting along,” Liberman said, referring to the period in 2013 when Peretz was environment minister in a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Liberman was foreign minister at the time.

Liberman, whose party is predicted to win eight seats in the March 2 election, likely again putting him in a kingmaker position, further said he was prepared to join a coalition led by Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz.

“It all depends on the baseline,” he said referring to his demands for greater rights for the secular community in a country where marriage, divorce, and conversion rituals are controlled by Orthodox parties.

MK Amir Peretz, right, MK Avi Dichter, center, and then defense minister Avigdor Liberman attend a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A political deadlock prevented two previous elections from yielding a coalition, leading to elections on March 2, the third vote within a year. Following the September vote, Netanyahu led a 55-MK bloc of right-wing and religious parties — short of the 61 seats he needed to form a majority government — facing Gantz at the head of a smaller center-left bloc. On the sidelines, and refusing to join either side in a coalition, sat Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List, an alliance of four majority-Arab parties.

Following the last election in September, Yisrael Beytenu had enough seats to carry Netanyahu past the 61-seat minimum he needed, but Liberman instead insisted only on a unity government formed of Likud, Blue and White, and his Yisrael Beytenu party.

Netanyahu and Gantz, both given a shot at forming a government, failed to reach agreements on a unity government.

However, Liberman indicated Thursday he will no longer make that demand after the coming election.

“It is clear that a unity government will not be formed. It didn’t happen the previous two times,” he said.

Even with the support of Liberman, Gantz would likely need defecting lawmakers from the right-wing bloc to form a majority government.

Liberman predicted that the nationalist New Right party, led by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Ayelet Shaked, would be the most likely to switch sides and abandon Netanyahu in favor of Gantz.

He also claimed that Netanyahu, who has been charged in three corruption cases and is awaiting trial, is unpopular among his own lawmakers, saying “more than half of the Likud faction dreams of choosing a new chairman. They are dreaming of the day when this nightmare will end.”

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu quickly responded to Liberman’s interview, writing on Twitter that Liberman was declaring he would join a government with Labor and Meretz — “a government that can’t be formed without the support of the Joint List.”

“Only voting for Likud will prevent fourth elections and the establishment of a government that is a danger to Israel,” Netanyahu wrote.

The leaders of the two ultra-Orthodox factions loyal to Netanyahu also slammed Liberman for his remarks.

Shas party leader Interior Minister Aryeh Deri wrote on Twitter that Liberman had confirmed “he has agreed with Gantz to set up a government with Meretz and the Arab Joint List. This is a personal and ideological bankruptcy.”

“After Liberman twice brought down a right-wing government, he plans to establish an anti-Jewish and anti-traditional leftist government,” Deri wrote.

United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman assured Army Radio that the right-wing bloc will not crumble and warned that “if there are fourth elections, it will only be because of Liberman.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett attends the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina political alliance, February 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Taking to Twitter, Bennett also responded, writing “Liberman, just like Lapid and Gantz, want to stop religious Zionism, the right-wing ideology and Yamina,” a reference to Blue and White No. 2 MK Yair Lapid.

On Wednesday, Bennett vowed not to sit in a government with Gantz, reiterating his loyalty to Netanyahu.

“Obviously we will enter a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu,” he told supporters during a Yamina campaign event in Kfar Maccabiah. Bennett decried what he described as “lies and rumors” that he would form a political alliance with Gantz, Netanyahu’s bitter rival.

“Under no circumstances will we enter an anti-religious and left-wing government of Gantz and [Yair] Lapid, who want to harm everything we believe in,” he declared.

Netanyahu failed to form a government following the April elections after Liberman refused to join over disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties on a military enlistment law. Following the September vote, Yisrael Beytenu refrained from endorsing either Netanyahu or Gantz for prime minister, insisting he would only join a unity government of their respective parties.

Despite Liberman’s support, Gantz does not appear to have a path to a government unless his party surges dramatically in the March 2 vote, after the Joint List said it would not back him unless he rejects elements of the Trump peace plan. Gantz, earlier this week, said his government would not extend an invitation to the Joint List — which has never sat in a coalition. The Joint List had also ruled out sitting in a government with the right-wing Liberman.

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