Avigdor Liberman met Wednesday afternoon with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of bringing his six-seat Yisrael Beytenu party into the coalition, with reports indicating that he had been offered and accepted the defense minister post.
The scuttlebutt over the possible coalition shakeup capped a day of political twists and turns amid intense efforts by Netanyahu to expand his razor-thin 61-seat governing coalition.
Netanyahu reportedly offered to make Liberman defense minister, a position currently held by former army chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, and demanded by the Yisrael Beytenu chief. Yisrael Beytenu party sources said Liberman accepted the offer. Ya’alon was said by some sources to have been offered the vacant post of foreign minister, though those close to him denied this.
The Netanyahu-Liberman talks took place hours after opposition leader Isaac Herzog froze negotiations with Netanyahu to bring his Zionist Union faction into the coalition, saying Netanyahu had to choose between him and Liberman.
Netanyahu’s Likud party said the talks with Liberman took place in “a good atmosphere” and ended in agreement to establish negotiating teams on the issue. The discussion was conducted in a “businesslike” manner, the party said.
The prime minister updated other coalition leaders on the details, according to Likud. Further talks were expected later Wednesday evening.
Netanyahu met with Ya’alon before Liberman but, according to Haaretz, the meeting was a “professional consultation” on security issues and did not include any discussion on removing Ya’alon as defense minister.
An unnamed source in the right-wing Jewish Home party called on Ya’alon to quit as defense minister, Channel 2 reported.
“It is time for Moshe Ya’alon to finally vacate the Defense Ministry, where he has only caused damage,” the source said.
Ya’alon has recently butted heads with Netanyahu and the right-wing over the IDF’s conduct and generals’ right to speak their minds about moral issues.
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Ya’alon recently clashed over an IDF soldier accused of manslaughter for shooting dead a disarmed and wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank in March.
An associate of Ya’alon said that while Ya’alon came into politics in order to become defense minister, he may be willing to consider other portfolios.
Former Yisrael Beytenu Knesset member Moshe Matalon told Army Radio that he will “recommend to [Ya’alon] that he consider taking a different portfolio if the defense portfolio is taken from him.”
According to Matalon, “his popularity is such that he could even consider a new path, which I have not proposed to him or discussed with him. This is the right time to take stock and consider all possibilities, including accepting another ministry.”
Netanyahu has looked to expand his coalition since forming his government over a year ago, saying pushing through any legislation with a wafer-thin majority was difficult, but talks seem to have only ramped up in recent weeks.
Earlier Wednesday, Liberman held a press conference denying that Netanyahu, who has been steeped in marathon coalition negotiations with Herzog, ever directly extended an offer to his party to join the government, though he said he would consider such a move if his demands were met.
“We do not rule out — and have never ruled out — entering the government under certain conditions,” he continued. “There is no personal issue, and all the personal matters are irrelevant. If our main issues are addressed, we have what to talk about,” Liberman said.
Liberman said his party was demanding the defense portfolio, support for the death penalty for convicted terrorists, and efforts to resolve the pension crisis for Israelis from the former Soviet Union.
His ultra-nationalist party is the only right-wing faction in the opposition, which is led by the Zionist Union and includes the Joint (Arab) List.
Netanyahu commands a 61-member coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, meaning the departure of any members could compromise his majority.
Liberman and Netanyahu ran on the same list in the 2013 elections, but had a public falling out in 2014 over the prime minister’s handling of the war in Gaza.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.