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Liberman sets out secularist conditions for joining coalition; Gantz agrees

Yisrael Beytenu chief’s demands include easing restrictions on conversion to Judaism, public transportation on Shabbat; still unclear whether Blue and White head has Arab support

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, right and Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman give a joint statement to the media after a meeting for coalition negotiations at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, right and Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman give a joint statement to the media after a meeting for coalition negotiations at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman on Sunday laid out five preconditions for his joining a potential coalition, consisting primarily of a set of secularist demands that have no chance of being accepted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies but were quickly accepted by Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz.

Once a close ally of Netanyahu, Liberman has been a thorn in the prime minister’s side since May 2019, when his insistence on a secularist agenda during coalition-building talks with Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies following the April election scuppered the negotiations and led Netanyahu to disband the Knesset and call a new vote.

Relations quickly grew acrimonious, with Netanyahu accusing Liberman of thwarting the formation of a right-wing government and joining the left (though Liberman’s political positions remain hawkish), as well as attempting — unsuccessfully — to destroy his base of support in the subsequent September vote. Liberman instead grew from five to eight Knesset seats. Last week Liberman won seven Knesset seats, as part of a bloc of 62 lawmakers who oppose Netanyahu. The prime minister and his supporters won 58 seats.

Over the past year Liberman has become an increasingly vocal critic of the prime minister, and has recently said repeatedly that “the Netanyahu era is over.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, February 3, 2014. (FLASH90)

On Sunday, Liberman listed in a Facebook post his conditions for joining a coalition. The first was guaranteeing a monthly stipend of at least 70 percent of the minimum wage in Israel for all retirees living off old-age pensions or guaranteed incomes.

All the other demands concerned the issue of religion and state.

He demanded that the right to decide whether to allow public transportation and open businesses on the Shabbat day of rest be transferred from the government to local municipalities and councils.

Another demand was a year-old pledge to pass, unaltered, a draft law regulating the conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to the military that was passed in a first reading in the Knesset in 2018. The ultra-Orthodox parties have vehemently refused this demand.

Liberman’s fourth demand was approving civil marriage in Israel, where religious authorities currently control all registration of marriage, and the fifth was to allow all city rabbis to oversee conversions to Judaism — a demand opposed by the ultra-Orthodox because they fear many people will go to relatively liberal rabbis who impose less stringent demands.

Gantz, who has said he was working to form a coalition despite having to bring together the nationalist Liberman and the predominantly Arab Joint List, quickly accepted Liberman’s demands. In a tweet sharing a screenshot of Liberman’s post, he wrote: “Agreed. We must move forward.”

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) shakes hands with Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman on November 29, 2019. (Elad Malka)

It is not yet clear how Liberman and Gantz hope to form a government to remove Netanyahu from power. Both have rejected support from the predominantly Arab Joint List alliance and its 15 seats. The Arab parties have repeatedly been drawn as an illegitimate political partner by majority Jewish parties for their anti-Zionist positions. Liberman himself has termed Arab lawmakers “a fifth column.”

But Gantz and Liberman could be forced to rely on Arab support, first to ensure Gantz receives a majority of recommendations from lawmakers that will lead President Reuven Rivlin to task him with forming a government, and then as possible outside support for a minority government led by Gantz.

The Joint List’s most extreme faction, Balad, on Sunday also released a set of conditions for the alliance to back Gantz.

Channel 12 news reported Saturday night that the current plan was for Blue and White to form a minority government alongside Labor-Gesher-Meretz (totaling 40 of 120 Knesset seats), with outside support from Yisrael Beytenu (7) and the Joint List (15).

Gantz and his allies would frame such a government as an emergency government to end the political stalemate that has paralyzed Israel for nearly a year now, and one which would leave its door open to any members of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc who wish to join.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at a conference at the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in Jerusalem, on February 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman has told confidants there is “no chance” he will join a government led by Netanyahu, claiming the incumbent prime minister was behind multiple legal complaints filed against him and his children last year, Channel 12 reported Saturday. The network cited those complaints as the cause for the growing distaste Liberman has shown for Netanyahu over the past year and his apparent resolve to oust him from power.

Liberman was said to tell his associates: “The most important thing right now is to ensure [Blue and White party chief Benny] Gantz gets the mandate [to form a government].” He said once that happened, and Blue and White gained control of the Knesset committees and process, “things will start happening” — an apparent reference to possible defections from Netanyahu to Gantz.

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