Liberman pledges not to budge on Haredi draft law, warns of new elections

Three days before PM’s deadline, with no coalition agreements signed, Yisrael Beytenu chief suggests ultra-Orthodox MKs could leave the Knesset plenum when key law is approved

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman said on Saturday that his party would endorse no other candidate for prime minister except Benjamin Netanyahu, but also that Israel may be headed for fresh elections unless the ruling Likud party agrees to a number of Yisrael Beytenu’s core demands, chiefly by passing the so-called Haredi draft bill.

“Both in the election campaign and after the elections, we said clearly and publicly that we would only support Netanyahu as a candidate for prime minister… Even today, we say unequivocally that we will not endorse any other candidate for prime minister,” Liberman wrote on Facebook.

However, he said, Yisrael Beytenu has also made it clear “before the elections, during the elections and after the elections” that the party “would not move an inch” on its demand for the passage, unamended, of a long-discussed bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students, a condition rejected by ultra-Orthodox parties.

With just three days to go until the May 28 deadline for Netanyahu to form a government, Liberman urged Likud to accept its demands. “Accept our proposal [on the Haredi draft law]. If not, we will again go to elections. The people will decide whether they want a right-wing government or an ultra-Orthodox government,” he wrote.

He did offer a suggestion for resolving the standoff, however, suggesting that ultra-Orthodox legislators could leave the Knesset plenum if and when the Hardedi draft law was finally approved, “just as they did when it passed its first reading” in the last Knesset.

In a jab at Netanyahu, Liberman said the Israeli right was “not a personality cult.”

The right-wing stands for values, he wrote. “Military service was always a top value in the worldview of the nationalist camp.”

Liberman’s position has thus far made it impossible for Netanyahu to assemble a ruling majority of right-wing and religious parties.

Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar. (Courtesy)

Earlier Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar accused Likud of handling coalition talks in an “arrogant and careless way,” focusing on the immunity law for the first three weeks after the elections and then spending another week deciding on a candidate for the State Comptroller, before turning to the matters of religion and state.

Speaking at a cultural event in the Eshkol Regional Council, Avidar said the draft law was a line in the sand against the “haredization of Israel.”

“We respect Judaism and we respect tradition, but we won’t allow for the whole country to become Shtreimel wearers,” he said in reference to the fur hat worn by many married ultra-Orthodox men.

On Friday, Liberman said he had been approached by members of Likud to join a government without the premier, a claim quickly denied by the ruling party.

“The only appeal to Liberman was and remains to join a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu,” the party wrote on Twitter.

“A way needs to be found to form a government in order to prevent the establishment of a left-wing government,” it added.

Liberman also said the “only alternative” to the incumbent premier was fresh elections.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman is seen during the ceremony for the swearing-in of the 21st Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In his remarks Friday, Liberman ripped Likud over its handling of the coalition talks and accused it of pandering to its ultra-Orthodox allies.

“Since the destruction of the Second Temple there has not been a leader who has given more to the ultra-Orthodox than Netanyahu, so the time has come that something be demanded of them in return for once,” he said.

In a Facebook post earlier Friday, Liberman called on Netanyahu “to put pressure” on the ultra-Orthodox to pass the conscription bill without changes and thus “to honor the original agreement” from the last government.

UTJ denied having made such an agreement and said it was always clear it would demand changes to the proposed law.

“Liberman isn’t speaking the truth on the issue of the draft bill,” UTJ leaders Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni said.

Agudat Yisrael chairman Yaakov Litzman and Degel Hatorah chair Moshe Gafni signing an agreement to run in the April elections as the United Torah Judaism party, January 16, 2019. (Degel Hatorah)

Without Yisrael Beytenu, Likud could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman and his party did not vote against such a coalition.

However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon ruled out such a possibility during a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu and other party leaders, Hebrew media reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon deliver a joint statement to the press about a new tax reduction, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Kahlon, head of the four-seat Kulanu, said such a government would have trouble functioning and would quickly unravel, according to the Haaretz daily.

Liberman boycotted Thursday’s meeting, during which Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners vowed to push ahead with attempts to form a government.

The meeting was called by Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem as he battled to finalize his new government ahead of the approaching deadline. Earlier reports had said Netanyahu was also considering heading to another general election.

Following the meeting, the Likud party issued a statement saying that all the participants had agreed on the necessity to form a right-wing government as soon as possible under Netanyahu, and called on Liberman “to stand by his promises to his voters and join the right-wing government without delay.”

“A government of 60 is not a right-wing government, but an ultra-Orthodox government that, instead of preserving Israel as a Jewish state, will change it into a theocracy,” Liberman said, adding that his party would “vociferously object” to such a coalition.

Most political analysts on Thursday still assessed that Netanyahu would manage to persuade all five other parties — UTJ, Shas, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — to join his Likud in a 65-strong coalition ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for doing so.

Union of Right-Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz (R) and National Union faction chair Bezalel Smotrich at the party’s 2019 election campaign launch, March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on Thursday, the leader of the URWPs, MK Rafi Peretz, notified Netanyahu that his party remains insistent that it be given the justice and education ministries in the next government, Channel 13 news reported. URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich vowed early Thursday that he would be justice minister, or his party would not join the coalition.

Netanyahu wants a Likud legislator helming the Justice Ministry, however, as he bids to avoid prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he is facing indictment, pending a hearing, since he is widely reported to be seeking to advance legislation that would render him immune from prosecution.

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