One the morning after a compromise deal was reached by the government, averting early elections at the 11th hour, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday rejected claims he had been coordinating developments with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throughout the coalition crisis.
“That is complete nonsense, it never happened,” he said of the charge that the dispute between his Yisrael Beytenu party and the ruling Likud was manufactured in order to provide a pretext for calling snap elections. During the crisis, senior coalition figures insinuated that Netanyahu, whom police have accused of taking bribes in multiple cases, was seeking a vote as a referendum of sorts on his rule.
“I can say in the most honest way that we were transparent and played the most open game possible,” Liberman said.
On Tuesday evening, party leaders emerged from days of infighting to reach a compromise agreement that staved off early elections and allowed the 2019 budget to pass, along with a contested bill pushed by ultra-Orthodox parties to exempt members of their communities from enlisting in the IDF. That bill was approved by the Knesset plenum late Tuesday in a preliminary reading, with Yisrael Beytenu MKs allowed to vote against it.
“The same framework we originally suggested for the legislation could have been agreed upon a week ago,” Liberman, who had been the bill’s most vociferous opponent, threatening to bolt the coalition if it passed, told Army Radio. “All the nerves could have been spared.
“Eventually, the prime minister did everything to ensure the coalition continued to function. Better late than never,” he added. “We need to remember that the main war isn’t between Jews in the Knesset, but with our enemies dispersed along our borders.”
According to the compromise deal, the conscription bill is now to be shelved until the parliament’s summer session, when it will be amended based on Defense Ministry recommendations and brought for its final votes. The 2019 state budget will be approved this week, before the end of the winter session, as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has demanded.
In his Wednesday interview, Liberman dismissed polls released by Israel’s main news channels Monday night that showed Yisrael Beytenu barely squeaking into the Knesset.
“Had I taken polls before the previous elections seriously, [opposition leader Isaac] Herzog would be prime minister and I wouldn’t pass the electoral threshold,” he said. “I see the polls and laugh, and we’ll see who has the last laugh.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, cited by many as a key figure in solving the coalition crisis, assessed Wednesday morning that elections would not be held for at least a year.
“I already said this was a bogus crisis and that it is solvable. There is no real, significant gap in the stances on limiting the scope of ultra-Orthodox enlisted to the army,” Shaked told Army Radio.
Shaked’s sentiment was echoed by the leader of her Jewish Home party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who said the IDF wasn’t interested in absorbing “tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews with 17 different versions of kosher [requirements] and full gender segregation.”
Asked whether Jewish Home would stay in the coalition in the event Netanyahu is indicted for corruption, both Bennett and Shaked asserted that the party would only then assess the situation and “consider its options.”
Infighting over the enlistment bill during the past week pushed the government to the brink of elections, with parties issuing competing ultimatums over remaining in the coalition. The ultra-Orthodox threatened to torpedo the 2019 state budget if the conscription bill did not pass its preliminary reading this week, and Kahlon threatened to quit if the budget is not passed.
On Tuesday, after the agreement was reached, a jovial Netanyahu took the opportunity to mock the opposition.
“That was scary, wasn’t it?” the prime minister scoffed at his opposition rivals during a brief speech in the Knesset plenum, referring to the scenario of early elections being called. “I’m glad the color has returned to your cheeks. I know that I saved you from massive disappointment, because had there been elections I’d be back here [at the lectern] and you’d continue to toss out commentary.”
Earlier Tuesday, senior sources in the coalition were quoted by multiple news outlets as saying Netanyahu had indeed initially sought early elections as a referendum on his rule ahead of a possible indictment, but had changed his mind after getting “cold feet.”
The prime minister is under investigation in a major corruption case, and facing police recommendations he be indicted for bribery in two other cases. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and repeatedly stressed he has no interest in early elections.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.