Liberman: Elections unavoidable, neither narrow nor unity government an option

Yisrael Beytenu leader says he tried to pressure Likud, Blue and White to agree on shared rule but they wouldn’t unite; ‘our hands are clean’

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media, during a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media, during a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman declared that he will no longer agree to join any narrow government, and that a unity government with the two largest parties was no longer an option, a position that all but certainly condemns the country to a third round of elections within a year.

In excerpts from an interview published Thursday, Liberman 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 narrow government is a government of “perpetual friction,” Liberman told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Since unity between Likud and rivals Blue and White is not happening either, “elections are coming,” he said.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

After neither secured a majority of seats together with their respective allies in the September election, both Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed their support for a unity government including both of their parties, but talks between them have failed to result in a coalition and they have traded blame for the impasse. On Tuesday, a meeting between Gantz and Netanyahu broke down after just 45 minutes.

Liberman campaigned on a unity government of his party, Likud, and Blue and White ahead of elections in September and has continued to push for such an arrangement amid the ongoing deadlock in coalition talks.

“To my regret, both of them [Gantz and Netanyahu] took a strategic decision to not go to unity, and therefore the two parties are responsible for another round of elections.”

“Our hands are clean,” he said.

Liberman accused Netanyahu and Gantz of playing the blame game and said that he had tried to push them into forming a unity government but now they are both looking to better their positions via another round of elections.

Netanyahu and Gantz, he said, are each relying on poll findings and hoping that they can win the next election — Netanyahu by leading a bloc of at least 61 seats and Gantz by getting at least 36 seats for his own party, a result which would better position him to negotiate a majority coalition without Likud in the 120-seat Knesset.

Liberman also admitted that remarks made to media earlier in the week by two lawmakers from his own party, in which they urged Yisrael Beytenu to join a narrow right-wing government led by Netanayahu, were part of a deliberate ploy intended to pressure Blue and White into joining a unity government with Likud.

The lawmaker said that when Netanyahu was given first try to form a coalition after September elections, he initially kept quiet but in the last week of the prime minister’s efforts he hinted he might join Netanyahu’s bloc, “in order to apply pressure on Blue and White.”

After Netanyahu admitted he had failed to establish a government, the baton passed to Gantz, who was also ultimately unable to negotiate a majority coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman at a joint press conference on May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman claimed that for its own interests, the correct thing for Yisrael Beytenu to do was to enter a narrow Netanyahu-led government, but that he wasn’t doing so for the greater good of the country. Yisrael Beytenu won eight seats in the last election. Likud won 32, which positioned Netanyahu at the head of a 55-seat bloc of MKs from allied right-wing and religious parties.

“That could have been a government of 63 [seats]. I could have been acting prime minister and defense minister, to get another two ministries, any [Knesset] committee I wanted, any budget that serves the interest of my party.”

No other party, he asserted, would have taken a such a decision against its own interests and for the benefit of the country.

The report was a preview of a full article to be published in the Yedioth Ahronoth weekend edition.

On Wednesday President Reuven Rivlin lamented the “troubled time” for Israel after months of deadlock, accusing political leaders of seeming to prefer “to go crazy” rather than compromise on a government.

“You haven’t slept for two months already, and it appears to me [you] just want to go crazy,” the president said. “If that’s what you want, go crazy! But why drag the nation with you?”

On Tuesday, MKs Oded Forer and Hamad Amar implored their party leader Liberman to consider joining a right-wing government should all other options fail. Such a scenario would see Yisrael Beytenu partner in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which Liberman has promised not to do since Israel’s first round of inconclusive elections in April.

Yisrael Beytenu MKs Oded Forer (R) and Hamad Amar (L) at the Knesset on July 18, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Liberman has previously served in numerous Netanyahu-led governments, but broke with his erstwhile partner after April’s elections, insisting he would only join a prospective government headed by the premier if legislation to boost ultra-Orthodox military enlistment was passed without changes. That demand was rejected by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies.

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has so far been able to form a government, even though both have publicly said they want to avoid a third vote.

If no lawmaker manages to get the support of at least 61 members of the 120-strong Knesset by December 11, elections will be called for the third time in less than a year. If those third elections are called, the first possible date for them to be held would be February 25, 2020, according to a Knesset legal official.

Liberman said last week that had Netanyahu been willing to compromise on religion and state issues, he would have joined a right-wing government alongside the religious parties. On Sunday, he issued a list of what he said were his “minimum” demands from religious parties in order to serve with them in a coalition.

Netanyahu has accused Liberman of not really wanting a unity government, secretly working for a minority government backed by the predominantly Arab Joint List, and seeking the role of prime minister for himself. Those claims have been rejected by Yisrael Beytenu.

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