Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman said Thursday he would back a deal in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is allowed to avoid jail in exchange for an agreement to retire from politics.
Netanyahu is facing criminal charges in three corruption cases and is thought to be seeking a Knesset support for immunity. The statement was the latest indication that he would likely face trouble in gaining Liberman’s backing to secure a parliamentary majority for immunity, should his right-wing religious bloc fall short of the needed 61 seats after elections in March.
Liberman told the Ynet news site that he backed “a deal [for the premier] to retire with dignity,” claiming there was “a sense of fatigue” with Netanyahu in the Knesset and a feeling that “he’s become a burden.”
He added: “No one wants to see him in prison, but no one wants him in politics either. And everyone is truly prepared to give him the opportunity to exit with dignity.”
He said if there were an initiative for a presidential pardon or legislative action to end Netanyahu’s prosecution in exchange for the prime minister stepping down, “I’m sure there will be wall-to-wall support. I think everyone here feels the man had contributed quite a bit and should be let go with proper respect, but no one wants to see him [here] anymore.”
Liberman said, “Every soccer player, even the best, needs to know when to hang up his shoes.”
Liberman did not explicitly say he would not support immunity for Netanyahu if he makes such a request of the legislature, but stated: “He will not have a majority for immunity. Even inside Likud there is a lot of objection.”
Liberman has hinted at opposition to immunity for Netanyahu during coalition negotiations that ended Wednesday, but has refused to make an explicit statement, possibly indicating that he was dangling the prospect for leverage in talks to form a government.
Israelis are set to go back to the polls on March 2 for a third time in under a year after two successive rounds of negotiations have failed to produce a government.
The hawkish Liberman, seen as a kingmaker, refused to join a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition headed by Netanyahu, and has been blamed by Likud for causing the political morass.
Instead, he had demanded the formation of a unity government between Likud and centrist rival Blue and White, but Likud conditioned it on Netanyahu staying on for a number of months in a power-sharing rotation, and Blue and White said the charges against Netanyahu disqualified him from being prime minister for any time.
On Wednesday, hours before the Knesset dissolved, reports proliferated that Netanyahu may announce he would not seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution — in order to counter an announcement by Blue and White that it would seriously consider entering a coalition with Netanyahu and would prevent a new election if he did so.
Liberman, who has claimed the existence of a large but subterranean Likud rebellion against its chief, said the idea was actually floated by Likud ministers anxious over the ongoing stalemate.
“The person who came to Netanyahu at night on behalf of Likud ministers was none other than the head of his negotiating team, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, with a demand that Netanyahu give up immunity,” Liberman said.
“I saw Netanyahu’s spokespeople gang up on [MK] David Bitan who said in one interview it was Netanyahu’s last chance to reach 61 [MKs],” he added. “I think anyone walking around [the Knesset] felt the sense of fatigue. Unfortunately he’s become a burden.”
Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz said Wednesday that the country was only facing another vote because Netanyahu is seeking immunity from prosecution.
Gantz said: “It now seems that we will be going into a third election cycle today because of Netanyahu’s attempt to obtain immunity.”
Netanyahu has not yet announced whether he would seek immunity from prosecution, but is widely expected to do so.
On Friday Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu is expected to ask the Knesset later this month for immunity. Netanyahu has until December 21 to ask for immunity — 30 days after the charges against him was announced by prosecutors.
Because of the political deadlock, however, the immunity issue may not be discussed by the Knesset for months, delaying the formal filing of the charge sheet against Netanyahu.
The Knesset House Committee, which weighs immunity requests, has been nonfunctional amid the political impasse resulting from two inconclusive elections.
Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s top legal adviser, ruled last week that the indictment of Netanyahu must be delayed until the House Committee decides on whether to extend him immunity. With the Knesset dissolved, the earliest the committee can meet is after a new Knesset is sworn in in mid-March.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him.
The premier’s legal woes have come as he also contends with political troubles, having failed in consecutive attempts to form a government and now facing an internal challenge for leadership of the Likud party.
Netanyahu and Gantz, who also was unable to assemble a coalition, have both stressed their commitment to a unity government of their two parties after neither secured a majority with their respective allies in September’s Knesset elections.
Talks between them, however, failed to result in a government and they have traded blame for the impasse, with the two vowing to defeat each other in the upcoming third elections.
Netanyahu must first defeat Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar in an internal leadership contest set for December 26.
Netanyahu’s failure to secure coalitions following both the April and September elections was largely attributed to Liberman, who in the wake of the April refused to join a Netanyahu government over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on the military draft law of ultra-Orthodox students. He has since toughened his stance, saying he seeks a secularist unity government and will only agree to sit with the ultra-Orthodox if they accept reforms on civil marriage, the opening of businesses on Shabbat and the draft.
Liberman recently said he would not be part of a narrow government — either right or left — because “the combination of dramatic defense and economic decisions with a narrow government is likely to create a large rift and polarization in the public.”
A number of recent polls have indicated that a third round of elections would result in continued gridlock, potentially further extending the political impasse well into next year.