Liberman says Likud MKs already ‘eulogizing’ Netanyahu behind the scenes

Yisrael Beytenu leader calls senior ruling party members ‘chickens’ for not challenging PM publicly, claims premier wants 3rd elections as Gantz set to receive coalition mandate

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman sign a coalition agreement in the Knesset on May 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman sign a coalition agreement in the Knesset on May 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has stepped up his rhetoric against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the next phase of coalition negotiations, blaming him for the current impasse and saying senior members of his Likud party were already secretly “eulogizing” him but afraid to challenge him publicly.

President Reuven Rivlin will task Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with forming a government on Wednesday evening, after Netanyahu announced earlier this week he was unable to do so.

Yisrael Beytenu, in the kingmaker position following the inconclusive September 17 elections, has said it will continue with its policy of not endorsing anyone for prime minister, while Netanyahu’s allies have reiterated their support for the premier.

In media interviews Tuesday and Wednesday, the secular right-wing party leader called Likud members “chickens” for continuing to rally around their embattled leader, charging that behind the scenes they were in fact “burying him alive.” He also stood behind recent remarks calling Culture Minister Miri Regev an “animal” and Foreign Minister Israel Katz a “pathetic liar,” saying those comments were in fact “very mild.”

From left to right: Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Culture Minister Miri Regev (standing), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-transportation minister Israel Katz and Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis during a Knesset vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I expect Likud MKs to wake up and realize that Netanyahu is dragging them, against their will and their interests, to another election,” Liberman told the Ynet news site on Tuesday. “It is time for them to stand up and tell Netanyahu ‘enough.’ Right now they are all behaving like a bunch of chickens. There is a big difference between what they are saying behind the scenes and in private conversations, and what they are saying in interviews.”

He elaborated on that point in a Wednesday interview with the Kan public broadcaster: “The Likud members are fending for themselves and Likud. We already see that all the senior members are preparing for primaries. While they are paying lip service and adding the words ‘after the Netanyahu era,’ in practice they are already eulogizing Netanyahu and burying him alive — [Nir] Barkat, [Israel] Katz and [Gideon] Sa’ar already said they would run. Whoever sees the events they’re hosting… understands that they are deep in the race.”

Netanyahu was initially tasked by Rivlin with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs after last month’s inconclusive elections (Likud: 32; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7 and Yamina: 7). Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties (Blue and White: 33; Labor-Gesher: 6; Democratic Camp: 5; and 10 out of 13 MKs from the mainly Arab Joint List).

Liberman is not in either bloc and has called for a secular unity government comprising Likud, Blue and White and his own party. But Netanyahu has refused to abandon his traditional ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism. And Gantz has so far refused to partner with Likud so long as Netanyahu is facing possible indictment in three corruption cases. Netanyahu has claimed he has been pushing for a unity government but Gantz was refusing to even talk.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz pays his respects in front of the coffin of former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

“Netanyahu is talking about unity and leading us to repeat elections and the evidence for that is his refusal to negotiate with Yisrael Beytenu,” Liberman told Kan. “The first thing we did was contact Likud in writing and ask to initiate coalition talks, but we didn’t get any response, they completely ignored it. Netanyahu has no interest in forming a government, he wants to buy time for his personal reasons.”

Liberman dismissed as “spin” a Likud accusation he was working toward a minority government with Blue and White and the mostly Arab Joint List, and even charged that Netanyahu was making generous offers to the latter party to prevent such a scenario.

“What we are hearing from everywhere is that in recent days Netanyahu’s people are pressuring the Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, promising them the world just so they don’t join forces with Benny Gantz.”

Liberman said that for him, the path to a unity government — he has been calling for one that only includes Likud, Blue and White and his own party — was more about the issues at hand and the policies such a government would adopt. While admitting he was aligned with Blue and White on religion and state matters, he said it “isn’t clear” how Gantz’s alliance would take care of the economy.

If Gantz fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse any Knesset member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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