Liberman says he may not back anyone for PM, or perhaps just nominate himself
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Liberman says he may not back anyone for PM, or perhaps just nominate himself

Yisrael Beytenu leader warns that if neither of the two leading candidates, Netanyahu and Gantz, meet his basic demands, then he won’t recommend either to form a government

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman  speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman said in an interview published Friday that he will not back any candidate to become prime minister after next week’s elections, unless they meet his basic demands for a liberal Zionist government.

Liberman told Maariv that he still has not decided who he will recommend to President Reuven Rivlin to be given first chance to form a coalition after the elections, and that if no one fits the bill he could even consider putting his own name forward.

“The recommendation will be dependent on the basic positions and principles that the candidates will present after the elections on March 2,” said the Yisrael Beytenu leader, who has positioned himself as a champion of secular rights. “It doesn’t matter who is prime minister, the basic positions of the next government are what is really important to us. As far as we are concerned all options are open and on the table.”

In November during coalition negotiations, Liberman published a list of demands regarding religion and state, saying they were the absolute minimum to which his secular party would agree in any negotiations to form a government.

Those included: the passing of a bill drafting members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the army, unchanged from its current form which was drawn up when he was still defense minister; a law governing the operation of mini-markets on Saturdays must be abolished; public transportation on Saturdays must be allowed at the discretion of each municipality; municipal rabbis must be given the authority to carry out conversions to Judaism; and there must be unlimited rights to civil marriage.

Liberman has given mixed signals about his intentions after Monday’s elections, saying he won’t join a Likud-led government if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still at the party helm, and that chief challenger Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz is “not ready to be prime minister.”

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on February 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He has also wavered on his previous demands for a unity government between Likud, Blue and White, and his own Yisrael Beytenu, while at the same time vowing he won’t let the country go to a fourth election.

Liberman was in a kingmaker position after the April and September votes, holding the balance of power between the Netanyahu-led right-Orthodox bloc and Gantz’s center-left-Arab opposition, but refrained from joining either one.

Following the April elections, he refused to join a prospective Netanyahu coalition over disagreements with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox political allies, and hostilities with the Haredi parties have escalated since. After the September vote, Liberman said he would only join a unity government made up of Likud and Blue and White and his Yisrael Beytenu party. When Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form such a government, a third election was called for March 2.

The most recent prediction polls have shown he will most likely maintain his grip on the balance of power, holding at least seven seats that will be enough to push either a Netanyahu-led right-wing religious block, or a Gantz-led center-left bloc over the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

However, on Wednesday, the right-wing secularist Liberman rejected the possibility of joining a Gantz-headed minority government supported by the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List, whose politicians the hawkish former defense minister has long branded as “terror supporters.”

The next day he told the Ynet website “I would be happy to go with Likud, sans Netanyahu.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the B’sheva group, on February 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud has resisted calls by the center and left to oust Netanyahu and reelected him as leader in late December primaries, despite his looming trial on a series of corruption charges, including bribery.

Liberman also dismissed the Blue and White leader as an option saying in the interview that “Gantz is a “good guy,” but he is “not yet ready to be prime minister.”

“The only one who can challenge Netanyahu in the political arena is Avigdor Liberman,” Liberman said.

Asked at the time why he was not directly challenging Netanyahu for the highest office, Liberman said he was concerned with the values of the future government, rather than seeking a job or promotion.

Even as he appeared to rule out all possible scenarios for a future government, Liberman pledged that Israelis would not find themselves back at the ballot box in a few months’ time.

Recent opinion polls have seen Likud edge ahead of Blue and White but suggested neither Likud nor Blue and White will be able to form a majority government without each other, signaling the political deadlock could continue after Monday’s vote.

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