Liberman backs Netanyahu for PM, but insists on passage of Haredi draft law

Secularist Yisrael Beytenu leader vows to hold the line against Orthodox parties over religious issues, even at price of coalition

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks at a party event at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks at a party event at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman, the chairman of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, said Monday that he would recommend Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, but indicated he would hold his ground on religion and state issues in a coalition likely to be dominated by the religious right.

“If we’re forced to choose between giving up on the [ultra-Orthodox] draft law to remain in the coalition, or sitting in the opposition, we will go to new elections,” Liberman threatened in a speech.

In principle, his backing of Netanyahu cements the prime minister’s right-wing coalition at 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

But Liberman’s party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.

Speaking at a meeting of his party’s Central Committee in Jerusalem on Monday, Liberman blamed the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism for initiating the developing crisis over the draft and other hot-button issues.

United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We’re trying to support common sense and logic on issues of religion and state. Those who aren’t willing [to do the same] will be responsible for the failure to establish the [next] government,” he said.

He praised Israelis for electing a right-wing parliamentary majority, but lamented that “the Haredi-Hardali wing of the right grew to 21 or 22 seats, something I see as a threat.”

“Hardal” is a Hebrew acronym for “Haredi-leumi,” or “Haredi-nationalist,” a branch of the religious-Zionist community that has shifted rightward on religious issues in recent years and resembles the ultra-Orthodox community on many social and political issues. It is represented in the Knesset by the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Liberman, whose base of supporters is largely made up of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, campaigned on opposing “religious coercion,” and supports public transportation and allowing mini-markets to remain open on Shabbat, in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, and passing legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students.

Liberman was seen by some on the center and center-left as a possible initiator of a national unity government of Likud and Blue and White, which together hold nearly 70 seats in the 21st Knesset. If Liberman conditioned his support for Netanyahu on such a government, Netanyahu may not have the coalition math to refuse, the thinking went.

Then-Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich, left, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman during a plenary session in the Knesset on January 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the idea never caught on among Likud leaders, and Liberman himself has dismissed it.

“A unity government should be formed around some issue,” Liberman said. “To establish a unity government without such a purpose is to establish a paralyzed government.”

Yisrael Beytenu is to meet with President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday to offer its recommendations for premier.

“There’s a leader, and the people have decided, and that decision must be respected,” Liberman said. “We will recommend Netanyahu as prime minister tomorrow.”

He said he promised before the elections that he would be part of a right-wing government, and that he stood by his promise, but that the new coalition must act like a right-wing government and not just talk like one. Liberman resigned as defense minister last November in protest at Netanyahu’s ostensibly weak response to rocket fire and other violence from Hamas-run Gaza. He said Monday that he wants to be defense minister again, and also wants the Absorption Ministry for his party.

Liberman also said that the five Knesset seats won by his party represented a “significant victory against all the odds.”

“We fought against a wall to wall coalition that sought to destroy us,” he charged. “It was an all out war” that was fought on the digital and political fronts “in a way that I have never seen before.”

TV news reports claimed Liberman and his party may now formally join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud, as Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu is also reportedly in negotiations to do.

Liberman’s threats on religion and state issues came hours after the Knesset’s two ultra-Orthodox factions issued their own threats on Monday.

Shas and UTJ reached an agreement with the Union of Right-Wing Parties to coordinate on issues of religion and state during the coming coalition negotiations, an ultra-Orthodox MK told his community’s Yated Ne’eman daily on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is coordination between the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a united front against Liberman,” UTJ’s Moshe Gafni said, confirming reports of collaboration between his party, Shas, and the nationalist-religious slate, in an effort to combat the Yisrael Beytenu head’s demands on religious issues.

The parties will present “an identical and uncompromising front” on matters such as the sanctity of the Sabbath, Yated Ne’eman reported.

Gafni told the Ashkenazi Haredi daily, “If our positions are not accepted, there will not be a coalition. It is inconceivable that Liberman, with his five seats, would dictate terms [that contradict the views of] three larger parties.”

The reported agreement came four days after URWP leader Rafi Peretz reached out to the chairmen of Shas and United Torah Judaism, proposing that they form a technical bloc in order to arrive at this week’s coalition negotiations with more influence, particularly on issues of religion and state on which the three parties largely agree. Peretz was seeking for the three parties, which will hold a combined 20 seats in the next Knesset, to then work together in parliament as well.

The move, confirmed to The Times of Israel by a URWP spokesman, is meant to serve as a countermeasure to the leverage Liberman is expected to wield during the talks.

Peretz told Shas head Aryeh Deri, whose party won eight seats, and United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, whose party won either seven or eight seats — the precise final tally is yet to be announced — that they were all in agreement against Liberman on religious issues.

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