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Liberman rejects Likud offer of defense post, TV report says

Desperate to expand his coalition, PM now said trying to woo members of Liberman’s party; Lapid plans court battle over plan for extra ministers

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was offered the post of defense minister in the new Netanyahu government on Friday afternoon but turned it down, a TV report claimed.

Liberman claims to have been contacted by officials close to Netanyahu with the offer, Channel 2 reported, but he rejected it as “not relevant” given his anger at the incoming coalition’s guidelines.

Likud officials said in response that either the claim was complete “spin,” or that those who approached Liberman were not acting on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The much-coveted defense portfolio was held in the previous government by Moshe Ya’alon of the Likud party, which rejected demands for it from prospective coalition allies in recent weeks. Ya’alon is expected to continue in the post.

The reported approach to Liberman came as Netanyahu strives to expand his incoming coalition beyond its current 61 seats. Netanyahu had anticipated a 67-strong coalition, but on Monday Liberman announced he was quitting as foreign minister and taking his six-seat Yisrael Beytenu into the opposition.

A new internal Likud “message sheet” shown by Channel 2 charges that Liberman “skewed his voters” by abandoning the coalition; the allegation is a pun: Liberman’s nickname “Yvet” is also the Hebrew word for “skewed.”

According to Channel 10, Netanyahu is now attempting to break apart Liberman’s six-seat right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beytenu and draw some of its members into his vulnerable incoming 61-seat coalition. Likud has offered ministerial posts to MKs Sopha Landver and Orly Levy if they bolt Yisrael Beytenu and join the coalition, without success, it said.

On Monday, two days ahead of Netanyahu’s deadline for forming a coalition, Liberman announced that his party would join the opposition, leaving Netanyahu contemplating the smallest of majorities as he negotiated with Jewish Home’s eight-seat Naftali Bennett and scraped together a 61-seat coalition less than two hours before a Wednesday midnight deadline.

Liberman is a previous close colleague of Netanyahu’s, and Likud and Yisrael Beytenu ran on a joint list in the 2013 elections. But Liberman, who represents a largely Russian immigrant constituency, is furious that the new coalition will not ease processes for conversion to Judaism or address other issues of importance to his voters. He castigated Netanyahu on Monday for his handling of the coalition negotiations, notably in making concessions to ultra-Orthodox parties, and said he could not sit in such a government.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, meanwhile, sent letters of warning Friday to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, threatening to take legal action against Netanyahu’s planned move to increase the number of ministers in the incoming government from 18 to 20.

The Knesset is set to vote Monday on a proposal to expand the government, which was curtailed by the last Knesset to 18 ministers; Netanyahu wants to create more ministerial posts so as to be able to offer more jobs to his senior Likud party colleagues.

Lapid threatened to appeal to the Supreme Court over the move, Ynet reported. “It’s an abominable political act which will cause serious, critical and irreparable damage to the standing and honor of the Knesset,” Lapid said in the letter.

Netanyahu will only announce which Likud MKs are to be given which ministerial positions after the Knesset vote, the Likud party said Friday, apparently to prevent potentially disgruntled MKs from not showing up to vote on the expansion move. Changing the law to allow 20 ministers requires 61 votes in favor from the 120-member Knesset, and therfore will need complete attendance by the members of the incoming coalition.

Likud MK Ayoub Kara threatened Thursday not to attend the vote if he didn’t receive a ministerial post.

Netanyahu’s fourth government is set to be sworn in two days afterwards, on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Likud officials confirmed that Netanyahu was hoping to expand his coalition to include the Zionist Union slate in a broad unity government. One party official told Israel Radio that Netanyahu was keeping the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself in the hopes of later handing the top cabinet post to Isaac Herzog, should he manage to cajole Zionist Union into joining the coalition in the coming weeks.

Netanyahu himself hinted at efforts to expand his coalition when he announced his newly formed government Wednesday night. “Sixty-one seats is a good number. Sixty-one-plus is a better number. But it starts with 61, and we will begin with that,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Capitulating to the demands of the Jewish Home party at the last minute on Wednesday night, Netanyahu agreed to give the right-wing party the education, justice and agriculture portfolios, the right to name a deputy defense minister from its own ranks, the leadership of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and control over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which funds and plans West Bank settlement building.

On Monday, Likud signed an agreement with Shas agreeing to give the ultra-Orthodox party the Economy Ministry, the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, the post of deputy finance minister and the chairmanship of the Knesset Education Committee. According to the agreement, party chairman Aryeh Deri will be the new economy minister and minister of development in the Negev. It is still unclear which of the party’s MKs will receive the religious affairs portfolio.

Last week, Netanyahu secured coalition deals with the Kulanu party and the ultra-Orthodox faction United Torah Judaism.

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