Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman on Monday appeared to backtrack on his previous suggestion that he could endorse both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz as candidates to form a government, as part of an eleventh-hour bid to force a unity government.
Liberman said the offer only stood if there was a genuine will to form a government merging Likud and Blue and White, and threatened that otherwise he wouldn’t back either politician.
Two rounds of elections, in April and September, failed to produce an elected government — a first in Israeli political history. The Knesset now has a December 11 deadline for at least 61 lawmakers to agree on an MK to form a government, or parliament will be dissolved and third elections set, likely for March.
The Knesset legal adviser has previously said lawmakers could back more than one prime ministerial candidate, but on Sunday clarified that MKs would be asked to whittle down their choice to one candidate in the event of more than one lawmaker receiving 61 signatures for the post.
Speaking at his party faction meeting in the Knesset, Liberman said that he was still dedicated to forming a national unity government and that his pledge to tell President Reuven Rivlin that he supports both Netanyahu and Gantz was “another tool to advance that same goal.”
Liberman — who refused to join a Netanyahu government in May over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on the military draft law of ultra-Orthodox students — has been pushing for a secularist unity government of Likud, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beytenu.
However, last week, Liberman said 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 to serve himself as prime minister. Those claims have been strongly rejected by Yisrael Beytenu.
At his faction meeting, Liberman referred to himself in the third person, asking, “What does Liberman really want?”
Answering the question, he said, “Liberman wants a unity government. Unlike everyone else, Yisrael Beytenu was the only party that from the very first day of the election [campaign] said it wanted a unity government.
“The easiest path would have been for us to join a narrow government. We didn’t do it because the State of Israel needs a broad government. It needs a government made up of the two major parties or it will not be able to make the decisions it must make,” said Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party holds eight parliamentary seats.
Liberman said both Netanyahu and Gantz were “playing a blame game and at the moment don’t really want unity.”
“We promised that we would leave no stone unturned searching for ways to create a unity government. The signatures are another tool to push that same goal.”
Speaking at his own Blue and White faction meeting, Gantz reiterated that he was prepared to enter a unity government, but only if he serves as prime minister first. The centrist alliance has ruled out joining a government led by Netanyahu, who faces criminal charges.
“I call upon Netanyahu: There are compromises in life,” Gantz said.
“Blue and White won the election, but we are prepared to allow for a rotation between us as part of a unity government. I will serve for a two year term, during which time you can remain at the helm of Likud and take care of your affairs. I assure you that we can find the correct status for your unique situation. This will allow you to return, should your name be cleared,” the Blue and White chief vowed.
With no breakthrough in sight and animosity brewing between the parties, Israel appeared poised to slide to a third election.
On Sunday, Liberman and Shas leader Aryeh Deri traded barbs over their respective constituencies — largely secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the ultra-Orthodox, respectively — as the political gridlock continued and new elections appeared imminent.
Liberman accused both the Likud party and Blue and White of being beholden to the ultra-Orthodox parties.
In a Facebook post, Deri, the interior minister, responded: “You demanded over NIS 2 billion for pensioners from the former Soviet Union who don’t work and don’t pay taxes. You demanded [Israel] open 17 immigration offices in former Soviet countries, states in which it’s doubtful there are even any Jews. And more.
“So how do you have the audacity to accuse the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] of extorting?” he said.
Deri denied Liberman’s claim that Blue and White had offered four ministerial portfolios to Shas last month to coax the Haredi party into joining it in forming a government.
Liberman, responding in a statement, said: “You seem to have a problem with reading comprehension. Maybe this is the results of the lack of core studies in the Haredi schools. In my post, I didn’t write a thing about Haredi extortion. My claims are against Netanyahu and Likud who bow to pressures by the non-Zionist parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.”
Liberman’s standoff with ultra-Orthodox parties over matters of religion and state has been a major obstacle in coalition negotiations.