Liberman rules out joining Likud-led coalition of right-wing religious parties

Yisrael Beytenu leader says his party has ‘principles,’ won’t renege on campaign vows to not sit in government with ultra-Orthodox and religious-right

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at the party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/ Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at the party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/ Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Monday said his party would not join a coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of religious-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, in accordance with his campaign promises.

“We are a party of principles. What we said before the election is true after the election,” he said, speaking onstage at his party’s headquarters in the central city of Modi’in.

Liberman said he was waiting for the actual tallies to come in — rather than exit polls — before making any other final decisions on how to proceed, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared close to a majority on Monday night. Israel’s three major news networks forecast that Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc would take 59-60 seats.

“Every seat matters, so we have to wait for the true results,” Liberman said.

The Yisrael Beytenu chairman said the party leadership would discuss how to proceed on Wednesday or Thursday.

In the past year’s three election campaigns, Liberman — whose party currently commands eight seats in the Knesset — came out strongly against both the ultra-Orthodox parties and the national-religious parties, referring to them derisively as “messianic.”

Liberman said the party “wouldn’t move one millimeter” from its promises to voters. In a tweet, he later said explicitly that he wouldn’t be part of a coalition led by Netanyahu.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer seen during a faction meeting in the Knesset, on December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Number two on the Yisrael Beytenu list, MK Oded Forer, said the party would not be swayed by offers of important ministerial posts.

“This is not about positions, it’s about principles,” Forer told The Times of Israel shortly after the exit polls were released.

Forer scoffed when asked if the party would rather have more direct control over government policy by joining the ruling coalition, rather than sitting in the opposition.

“Sitting in a government that is carrying out a policy that is opposite to your own doesn’t mean you’re influencing things. It means you’re a doormat, and we don’t plan to be a doormat,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu also refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition following the 2015 elections, remaining in the opposition for a year before eventually joining the government.

In the past two elections, Liberman has been in the position of “kingmaker,” able to give or deny his erstwhile political ally Netanyahu a majority in the Knesset and another tenure as premier.

He twice denied Netanyahu: first in last April’s election, by demanding significant concessions from the ultra-Orthodox parties, which were refused, and then again last September, by demanding a national unity government between the Likud and the Blue and White party.

As a result of his refusal to again join with Likud, Liberman is widely seen as being the main cause of both Monday’s and September’s elections.

For years, the Molodovan-born Liberman was closely tied to Netanyahu, having served as the director-general of his Prime Minister’s Office in 1996-1997. Though Liberman struck out with his own political party in 1997, he maintained tight relations with the Likud, even merging with it for the 2013 elections.

Liberman split from Likud for the 2015 elections, serving in the opposition until June 2016, when he struck a coalition deal with Netanyahu and was named defense minister.

During his tenure in the Defense Ministry, Liberman clashed publicly with Netanyahu over the government’s positions on the Gaza Strip, arguing that Israel should take a far harsher stance against the Hamas terror group, which rules the enclave. He cited those issues as his reason for resigning from the role in November 2018, following a major flareup between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

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