A key coalition partner being wooed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied on Wednesday that he was conspiring with a second likely coalition partner to hand the reins of power to the centrist Blue and White party.
In a report in the Haaretz daily, sources familiar with the coalition talks said Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 35 seats in the April 9 election, has started to wonder if Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman and Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon were coordinating an effort to torpedo the establishment of a right-wing coalition.
Liberman on Wednesday denied doing anything of the kind; Kahlon, as of midday Wednesday, had not responded to the claim.
The secularist, hawkish Liberman has demanded more than what Likud believes is his fair share of control over ministries and government policies — given his party’s paltry five Knesset seats — including the defense minister post, a more secularist religion-and-state stance, and a more combative posture toward Hamas in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Kulanu’s Kahlon, the finance minister in the outgoing government — in which he controlled 10 Knesset seats — is now seeking to hold on to the job despite his party shrinking to just four seats and has refused to conclude his coalition talks with Likud.
Netanyahu has two weeks before the deadline for submitting his coalition to the Knesset.
The Walla news site reported Tuesday that Kahlon had told Likud negotiators he would not formally sign any coalition agreement until after Liberman did so. The wait may be part of Kahlon’s negotiating strategy, a gamble that no other party will demand the Finance Ministry, leaving it to either himself or Likud at the last stage of the talks. But Netanyahu reportedly understood the statement to mean that Kahlon and Liberman were coordinated in their refusal to seal the deal.
Without the combined nine seats of Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu cannot form a majority coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
On Tuesday, United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler openly accused Liberman of “trying to prevent a right-wing government.
“Maybe he’s struck a deal with [Blue and White’s] Yair Lapid to establish a secular government without Haredim, and without Netanyahu,” Eichler suggested in an interview with Israel Radio.
Facing similar accusations from sources close to Netanyahu himself, Liberman took to Facebook on Wednesday to deny any coordination.
“There is no coordination between Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu,” he wrote. “Since the election I’ve met with Minister Kahlon only once, for a minute and a half, in the Knesset plenum.”
He insisted his party was not plotting to undermine Netanyahu’s premiership.
“We won’t support any candidate [for prime minister other than Netanyahu], not from within Likud and not from outside Likud. But we won’t give up on our principles. We have to be taken seriously, and anyone looking for someone to blame if a right-wing coalition fails to materialize should be looking in the mirror,” he said.
He slammed the Haredi parties for “attacking us instead of talking about substance. Our views on religion and state are clear as day: We support a Jewish state, we oppose a state of halacha [Jewish religious law].”
The latest ruckus comes after Liberman threatened on Monday to take his party to the opposition, citing significant gaps with Likud in coalition talks, mainly on security-related issues. He declared he would hold no further negotiations, telling Netanyahu that either he could accept his demands or risk sending Israelis back to the polls.
In the coalition talks, Liberman laid out five core demands he said were his party’s red lines, including the defeat of Hamas; blocking any changes to proposed legislation regulating military conscription for ultra-Orthodox men; and ending certain despised practices employed by some in the state rabbinate when dealing with Russian-speaking immigrants, such as DNA tests to examine Jewish family ties.