In a dramatic announcement Saturday night, Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman presented an ultimatum to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, saying that if they do not accept tough compromises in order to form a coalition together, he will back the other candidate and give up on his pledge to only support a national unity government.
“Gantz must accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence, and Netanyahu should say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc,” Liberman told Channel 12 news.
“I expect both people to make the right decisions. I intend to appeal to both of them and request a meeting this week. Whoever makes the wrong decision — we in Yisrael Beytenu will draw the conclusions. Whoever makes the wrong decision — we will support the other side,” the Yisrael Beytenu chief said.
President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Gantz with attempting to form a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September 17 elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed are seen as just as slim, with the Netanyahu-led bloc of 55 lawmakers Likud formed with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious factions vowing to only enter a government together.
The bloc has been a major stumbling block in talks between Likud and Blue and White. The two major parties have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another, third round of elections.
The president’s unity government scheme would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as premier.
In setting out his idea in September, Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.
Liberman said that “the most important thing for the State of Israel right now is to prevent a third-round election and to establish a unity government. I believe that both [Netanyahu and Gantz] are both responsible” and want what is best for the State of Israel.
Neither Blue and White nor Likud immediately responded to Liberman’s ultimatum but Channel 12 reported that sources in the ruling party said Netanyahu could not give up on his bloc of right-wing and religious parties.
It was Liberman’s refusal to join a Likud-led right-wing government after the April vote that led to Netanyahu dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.
Liberman, who champions secular rights and resisting religious coercion, cited an impasse with ultra-Orthodox parties as the reason for not joining; however, Likud accused him of deliberately foiling Netanyahu’s coalition efforts for his own political gain.
On Thursday, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu said that they had reached understandings on several issues in coalition talks, the first such public announcement of progress since Gantz was tasked with forming a government.
“During the day the negotiation team discussed key issues on the agenda, in order to move forward with formulating the principles of a broad, liberal national unity government,” the parties said in a statement.
Liberman’s ultimatum came a day after Netanyahu named New Right MK Naftali Bennett as temporary defense minister, in a move seen as shoring up support with his right-wing religious allies amid the coalition deadlock and his expected indictment for corruption.
In his Saturday interview, Liberman said he was “not surprised” by the appointment and wished Bennett “the best of luck.”