Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman issued a broadside against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday, calling for a televised “face-off” with the premier to set the record straight on “everyday lies” told by the PM and members of the ruling Likud party ahead of the elections next month.
In an interview aired on Channel 12’s Meet the Press, Liberman said he “pitied” Netanyahu for having to “resort to lying every day, every hour” about the Yisrael Beytenu head’s bona fides as a right-wing leader, instead calling him a member of the Left.
Liberman precipitated the September 17 vote by refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition following the April elections when he clashed with ultra-Orthodox parties over legislation to regulate military service for ultra-Orthodox men. An irate Netanyahu said at the time that “Liberman is now part of the Left,” a charge he’s repeated several times since.
On Saturday, Liberman said Netanyahu’s statements about him showed he was “in a desperate situation.”
The Yisrael Beytenu leader then addressed Netanyahu directly, telling him “come here [on TV], let’s have a discussion about who’s a man of his word, what is Left and what is Right.”
He then listed off a number of Netanyahu’s positions over the years which ostensibly did not fit with a right-wing outlook, including the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which Netanyahu voted in favor of, the 2011 release of 1,028 Palestinian terrorists in exchange for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the allowance of payments to Palestinian terror group Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, and the 2013 apology to Turkey over the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.
“Let’s have a confrontation, let’s talk here as a man from Caesarea and a man from Nokdim,” Liberman said in reference to Netanyahu’s private home in the affluent Israeli city and to his own home in the West Bank settlement.
Liberman further added that this sit-down was unlikely to happen because the prime minister “is afraid, he knows his situation is dire.”
Despite the attacks, the Yisrael Beytenu head said that he would like to see a unity government formed between the Likud, the centrist Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, and his own party, excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions and the left-wing parties.
Liberman said he was aware he was leaving himself with just one option but that his party would “not join any other government.”
Polls have shown that both Likud and Blue and White are unlikely to be able to form a government after the September elections without Yisrael Beytenu. A Channel 12 survey aired Saturday showed that more voters prefer a unity government made up of the Likud and Blue and White than one that would include Yisrael Beytenu.
His party, Liberman said, needed to have enough seats to “force” this reality on the Likud and Blue and White, “because there is no real difference between Netanyahu and Gantz; both would agree to a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties, with the Arab parties, and with the left-wing parties, so long as they’re in power.”
Backtracking on a comment made earlier in the day appearing to not rule out a rotation for the premiership, Liberman told Channel 12 that there “would be no rotation, there would be no need for rotation.”
At a cultural event on Saturday afternoon, Liberman said he would be interested in becoming premier and would not rule out the possibility of rotating the position with Netanyahu in a future coalition government.
“For me [the premiership] is just an option rather than an obsession,” Liberman said at a cultural event in Modi’in. “It interests me to be prime minister but I’m realistic and try to see the full picture. There must be enough seats — first, we have to win the elections, then we divide up [the roles].”
The real struggle in these elections, Liberman told Channel 12, was not about who would prevail as prime minister, whether Netanyahu or Gantz, but about which Israel would prevail, “the one of Yisrael Beytenu or the one of [United Right’s Bezalel] Smotrich, [Shas’s Aryeh] Deri and [United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov] Litzman.” He was particularly making reference to Smotrich who has made controversial statements about his ambitions for the role of religion in state affairs.
“If neither Netanyahu nor Gantz commit to forming a government without these parties, we will not recommend him for prime minister,” Liberman said.
“The first leader to commit to a broad national unity government will get our support,” he added.
Liberman also laid out a scenario by which the Likud wins more seats than Blue and White in the September vote but does not commit to forming a coalition with Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.
“We won’t recommend anyone but the next day, I’ll turn to my friends in the Likud…and ask them to place someone else as head of the party,” he promised, ruling out a third round of elections.
“It’s clear to everyone that there won’t be a third vote,” said Liberman, and should Netanyahu fail to form a government again, “the Likud will have to think very hard about what they will do.”
Asked to propose a Likud member who could head the party instead of Netanyahu, Liberman named Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein.
“I am certain that in the Likud, when they realize that once again Netanyahu won’t be able to form a government just like he couldn’t in April, another party head will be found.”
The Likud party said in response that Liberman “dragged the country” to a second round of elections that will cost billions, not because of legislation to regulate military service for ultra-Orthodox men, “but solely because of his desire to be prime minister.”
The Likud further said: “A week ago, he said he would recommend Gantz for premier, today he said he is aiming to be prime minister in a rotation with Gantz.”
Liberman called the last line in the Likud statement “a perfect demonstration on live TV” of how the Likud “makes things up, distorts and lies.”
“There will be no rotation, not with Netanyahu, not with Gantz,” he said, “I’m aiming for a broad, liberal national unity government.”
Liberman further said Netanyahu’s behavior was “sad” and “calls into question his fitness to function as prime minister; maybe the years have taken their toll.”