Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avidgor Liberman said Friday he has been approached by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to join a government without the premier, a claim quickly denied by the ruling party.
With just four days to go until the May 28 deadline for Netanyahu to form a government, Liberman has ruled out joining a coalition unless Likud agrees to a number of core demands, thus far making it impossible for Netanyahu to assemble a ruling majority of right-wing and religious parties.
Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 elections. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together, these parties thus hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, with its five seats, for a majority.
Among the main sticking points in coalition negotiations is Liberman’s demand for the passage, unamended, of a long-discussed bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students, a condition rejected by ultra-Orthodox parties.
“We endorsed Netanyahu for prime minister when we met with the president, and we won’t recommend anyone else, said Liberman, “even though there were overtures to us, from inside and outside of the Likud, to take another route.” Speaking at an event in the southern city of Netivot, he added: “We rejected them all out of hand,” he added.
In comments he made earlier Friday, he also said the “only alternative” to the incumbent premier was fresh elections.
Likud firmly rejected Liberman’s claim.
“The only appeal to Liberman was and remains to join a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu,” the party wrote on Twitter.
“A way needs to be found to form a government in order to prevent the establishment of a left-wing government,” it added.
In his remarks, Liberman also ripped Likud over its handling of the coalition talks and accused it of pandering to its ultra-Orthodox allies.
“Since the destruction of the Second Temple there has not been a leader who has given more to the ultra-Orthodox than Netanyahu, so the time has come that something be demanded of them in return for once,” he said.
In a Facebook post earlier Friday, Liberman called on Netanyahu “to put pressure” on the ultra-Orthodox to pass the conscription bill without changes and thus “to honor the original agreement” from the last government.
United Torah Judaism denied having made such an agreement and said it was always clear it would demand changes to the proposed law.
“Liberman isn’t speaking the truth on the issue of the draft bill,” UTJ leaders Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni said.
Without Yisrael Beytenu, Likud could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman and his party did not vote against such a coalition.
However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon ruled out such a possibility during a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu and other party leaders, Hebrew media reported.
Kahlon, head of the four-seat Kulanu, said such a government would have trouble functioning and would quickly unravel, according to the Haaretz daily.
Liberman boycotted Thursday’s meeting, during which Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners vowed to push ahead with attempts to form a government.
The meeting was called by Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem as he battled to finalize his new government ahead of the approaching deadline. Earlier reports had said Netanyahu was also considering heading to another general election.
Following the meeting, Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement saying that all the participants had agreed on the necessity to form a right-wing government as soon as possible under Netanyahu, and called on Liberman “to stand by his promises to his voters and join the right-wing government without delay.”
“A government of 60 is not a right-wing government, but an ultra-Orthodox government that, instead of preserving Israel as a Jewish state, will change it into a theocracy,” Liberman said, adding that his party would “vociferously object” to such a coalition.
Most political analysts on Thursday still assessed that Netanyahu would manage to persuade all five other parties — UTJ, Shas, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — to join his Likud in a 65-strong coalition ahead of Tuesday, May 28’s deadline for doing so.
Also on Thursday, the leader of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, MK Rafi Peretz, notified Netanyahu that his party remains insistent that it be given the justice and education ministries in the next government, Channel 13 news reported. URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich vowed early Thursday that he would be justice minister, or his party would not join the coalition.
Netanyahu wants a Likud legislator helming the Justice Ministry, however, as he bids to avoid prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he is facing indictment, since he is widely reported to be seeking to advance legislation that would render him immune from prosecution.