Liberman assails Netanyahu and Gantz, who trade barbs in the Knesset
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Liberman assails Netanyahu and Gantz, who trade barbs in the Knesset

Following broadside from Yisrael Beytenu chief, PM and Blue and White leader engage in war of words at memorial for Yitzhak Rabin

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 28, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 28, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman on Sunday called into question the leadership qualities of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, a day after serving them an ultimatum to form a unity government.

“Netanyahu’s slander and accusations against me and others, as well as his inability to make one simple decision to part from the ultra-Orthodox-messianic bloc, raise a giant question mark concerning his leadership skills and the considerations that guide him,” Liberman said in a statement.

He added: “Benny Ganz’s ongoing stalling on a decision to accept the president’s proposal also raises tough questions concerning [his] leadership and decision-making ability in a critical period.”

Liberman said he remains committed to the establishment of a liberal unity government comprising Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White, and warned that most Israelis are opposed to third elections.

“My expectation, from both Likud and Blue and White, is to get a clear answer as quickly as possible,” he said.

In a dramatic announcement Saturday, Liberman presented a challenge to both Netanyahu and Gantz, saying that if they do not accept tough compromises in order to form a coalition together, he will back another candidate and renege on his pledge to only support a national unity government.

“Gantz must accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence, and Netanyahu should say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc,” Liberman told Channel 12 news.

Liberman implied that if Netanyahu refused to separate from his 55-MK bloc of right-wing and religious parties, he could support, from the outside, a minority government led by Gantz. Such an arrangement would see the hawkish right-wing leader allied with the Arab lawmakers, whom he has long accused of “disloyalty” and “terror support.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset, on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Gantz with attempting to form a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September 17 elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed are seen as just as slim.

The 55-MK bloc has been a major stumbling block in talks between Likud and Blue and White. The two major parties have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another, third round of elections.

The president’s unity government scheme would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as premier.

In setting out his idea in September, Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

Following Liberman’s diatribe, Gantz and Netanyahu’s ongoing war of words over the stalled negotiations spilled over into a memorial event for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Speaking at the official Knesset session marking the 24th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu denounced the “political attacks” against him at memorial events for the slain premier, which he accused Blue and White of setting the stage for.

“Unfortunately, this year, too, there were those who decided to take advantage of the official state memorial to carry out a callous and shameful political attack that more than anything harms the memory of Yitzhak Rabin. This happened after the rally at Rabin Square [in Tel Aviv] this year turned into a Blue and White rally,” he said from the Knesset podium.

Turning to Gantz, Netanyahu said, “I would expect to speak there not only about hate, hate, hate but also unity, unity, unity.”

Speaking after Netanyahu, Gantz accused the prime minister of damaging the country for his own benefit.

“The State of Israel is paralyzed because it was decided to hold elections for personal reasons — not because of political entanglements, but because of the legal process,” he said, alluding to the pending corruption indictment against Netanyahu and his efforts to evade prosecution by remaining prime minister.

“There needs to be a government led by the majority, including by the second-largest party, Likud. You, too, sir, can and need to be a part of it,” Gantz said to Netanyahu. “But on a moral and ethical level, you cannot lead a government if and when you are indicted.”

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the Knesset, November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Gantz, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz also attacked Netanyahu, saying: “You cling to power as tightly as you can, and the people and the country are paying for it.”

Netanyahu rose to the podium for a second time and responded to both Peretz and Gantz, saying: “What we’ve heard here, unfortunately, and also earlier on Mount Herzl, is a breach in statesmanship, turning a memorial day into a blatant, unbridled, politicized meeting.”

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu launched an offensive against Liberman, accusing him of “fully coordinating” his moves with the Arab parties and planning to form a minority government with them and the left.

During the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu responded to Liberman, saying it was all a “show” and his ultimatum was in fact directed only at the Likud party and not at Blue and White, since he was only demanding that Likud ditch its partners and not Blue and White.

He quoted recent statements by Liberman — a right-wing politician who has for many years campaigned on aggressive messages against Arab Israelis — calling the leaders of the Joint List a “fifth column” and saying their true place was in the parliament in Ramallah rather than the Knesset.

There was no immediate comment from Gantz or Blue and White officials on the ultimatum.

It was Liberman’s refusal to join a Likud-led right-wing government after the April vote — over a disagreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties — that led to Netanyahu dissolving the 120-member parliament and calling fresh elections. In the September elections, he jumped from five seats to eight, making him a potential kingmaker.

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