Liberman eyes premiership, ambivalent about rotating top spot with Netanyahu
'First, we have to win the elections'

Liberman eyes premiership, ambivalent about rotating top spot with Netanyahu

As Yisrael Beytenu strengthens in polls, party leader says he is interested in holding post of prime minister but it’s an ‘option rather than an obsession’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman on May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman on May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman on Saturday made it clear that he is interested in becoming premier and did not rule out the possibility of rotating the position with Prime Minister Benjamin 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].”

When pressed by interviewer Amalia Duek, an Israeli journalist, on the option of rotating the position should his party garner enough Knesset seats, Liberman said: “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m trying to stay realistic and to first bring in enough seats.”

Sources close to Liberman later walked back that possibility, telling the Hebrew-language media in a statement that there was “no option” for rotation with Netanyahu and that the “efforts are focused on building a wide, national, liberal government.”

The Likud party said in response that Liberman’s words were “a smokescreen” and that he intends to nominate Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid for the premiership.

Polls show that both Likud and Blue and White are unlikely to be able to form a government after the September elections without Yisrael Beytenu.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters at the Knesset as his party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Flash90)

Recent surveys predicted around 56 seats going to right-wing and religious parties in the national vote on September 17, including Netanyahu’s Likud, but without Yisrael Beytenu.

The polls predict around 42 seats going to center-left parties, with Gantz’s Blue and White, like Likud, expected to secure around 30 seats. In this scenario, neither side could form a coalition without Yisrael Beytenu, which is expected to win around 11 seats. Gantz would be unable to form a coalition even with the support of the Joint (Arab) List’s 11 or so seats.

Netanyahu is most likely looking to form a government with the support of either Labor-Gesher or Yisrael Beytenu following recent polls and the official registration of all parties running in the September election, although there are significant obstacles to a partnership with either party, according to a Friday report from Channel 12.

Complicating matters for Netanyahu, the extremist right-wing Otzma Yehudit faction will be running alone in the election, after failing to merge with Ayelet Shaked’s United Right union. Otzma Yehudit is unlikely to cross the electoral threshold, meaning right-wing votes for the party will not translate into Knesset representation.

Moshe Feiglin’s quasi-libertarian hard-right Zehut is also unlikely to win any seats.

Of the 32 parties that registered with the Central Elections Committee before Thursday’s midnight deadline, only nine are projected to enter the next Knesset.

One scenario for a Netanyahu-led government would be a right-wing coalition including Yisrael Beytenu. Liberman precipitated the September 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 election campaign poster showing Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman over the caption, ‘Right-wing, and secular too,’ in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019, ahead of the April 9 general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rather than risk being left out of the coalition, the two ultra-Orthodox parties might agree to passing the bill to regulate the ultra-Orthodox military draft, and thus facilitate a coalition alongside Liberman, Channel 12 suggested. It was Liberman’s demand for the passage of this legislation, unchanged from its current form, and the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to promise this, that doomed Netanyahu’s coalition-building efforts in April-May.

Liberman on Tuesday told supporters that he plans to force a national unity government with Likud, the centrist Blue and White party and his own party, saying that there was “essentially no difference” between the two other factions and that he would recommend that the first leader to call for a unity government be tasked with forming a coalition.

A poll aired Thursday found that half of Israeli voters want to see a unity government between the Likud and Blue and White parties that does not include ultra-Orthodox factions.

While Gantz has voiced support for a unity government, albeit without Netanyahu, Likud has been dismissive of the proposal, and insists on a coalition with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Liberman will probably change his campaign’s direction and cease his attacks against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a separate Friday report from Channel 13.

The leader of Yisrael Beytenu, which is associated with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, received results of a study on Wednesday indicating that he and Netanyahu were the most popular figures among immigrants in Israel, and that voters would punish in the election whoever they viewed as more “guilty” in the conflict between the two. More of the respondents already placed blame for the rift on Netanyahu rather than on Liberman, himself an immigrant from Moldova.

Netanyahu’s efforts to recruit defectors from Liberman’s party had hurt him among voters, said the survey, which interviewed around 1,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

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