Comparing the Likud party’s “propaganda machine” to that of dictator Joseph Stalin, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Monday insisted he would not budge from his position in the coalition negotiations and would not hesitate to bring about new and “unnecessary” elections in three months’ time, unless the ultra-Orthodox parties agreed to pass legislation they bitterly oppose regulating the draft of yeshiva students into the military.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party said it would bring a proposal to dissolve the Knesset for the first of three parliamentary votes on Monday afternoon, putting pressure on potential coalition parties to reach an agreement or face another election. Likud has repeatedly blamed Liberman’s obstinacy for obstructing the formation of a government.
Two days before a deadline to build a coalition, Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners. The sticking point is a bill regulating the Haredi military draft, which the ultra-Orthodox parties seek to soften, and which must swiftly be re-legislated under Supreme Court order. Liberman, meanwhile, has insisted he will not budge from a Defense Ministry-drafted version of the bill stipulating the number of ultra-Orthodox seminary students drafted into the military.
Speaking at a weekly Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, the former defense minister, who walked away from the prime minister’s previous government, denied he had a personal vendetta against Netanyahu or was motivated by feelings of revenge.
At stake, he said, was not merely ultra-Orthodox enlistment, but rather what the leader of the right-wing secular party described as Netanyahu’s capitulation to the demands of the Haredi coalition parties on Shabbat and other matters of religion and state.
“I agree it’s not just the draft law. The draft law became a symbol… but look at what is happening here,” he said, referring to demands by the ultra-Orthodox parties to restrict construction in Tel Aviv on Saturdays and, reportedly, ban the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo from operating on the Jewish day of rest.
“I want to emphasize yet again: We are in favor of a Jewish state, we are against a halachic [Jewish law] state,” he said.
In his remarks against Netanyahu, Liberman berated Likud’s attempts to strong-arm him into dropping his demands, citing briefings against him, articles attacking him that cite Likud officials, and taunts by Netanyahu’s spokesperson that if new elections are called, Likud will aggressively pursue Yisrael Beytenu’s Russian-speaking electoral base.
The Moldova-born politician likened the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom — which on Monday ran a front-page headline: “A deception named Liberman” — to propaganda methods utilized by murderous dictator Stalin.
“Even Pravda in the Stalin era was more gentle and objective,” he wryly remarked.
Liberman accused Netanyahu of attacking him to deflect from his failure to clinch any coalition deals, a scenario he noted was unusual for a political party that won “decisively” in a national election.
“I think that if Likud really wants to blame anyone, they should look in the mirror,” he said.
Addressing the cost of another election to the state budget — the second in a matter of months — he said: “It’s totally unnecessary. It’s still, however, cheaper than the coalition deals.”
“Elections, in this case, is the cheapest option,” he repeated, noting the steep budgetary demands being sought by other political parties.
He also denied that in the event of new elections, he would run on a joint ticket with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, while dismissing rumors that he was conferring with other senior lawmakers on the possibility of forming a new government without Netanyahu.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you: Since the election campaign, I haven’t met with [Likud MK] Gideon Sa’ar or [Kulanu leader] Moshe Kahlon,” said Liberman, noting that he had last met Blue and White’s Yair Lapid two weeks before the April 9 vote.
Librman reiterated that he would support the bid to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections by August 27 in its first vote on Monday evening, saying he was “not afraid of taking risks.”
The bill would require two more votes before elections could be called.
And he insisted that all that stood in the way of a coalition was the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers’ agreement to walk out of the plenum when the Knesset advanced the enlistment bill into law.
Despite his bellicose tone, in an apparent message to Netanyahu, Liberman again stressed that he would support legislating an immunity law and Supreme Court override law to shield the prime minister from prosecution in the three criminal cases he is facing.
He also held off on predicting whether Israel would indeed find itself facing new elections, saying he would leave the assessments to the political punditry.
Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority.
Netanyahu faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a coalition. But should he fail to build a coalition by then or dissolve the government, he may be able to buy himself another 14 more days, exercising a never-before-used legal provision, analysts say.
Immediately after the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, URWP leader Rafi Peretz was spotted entering Liberman’s office in attempt to broker a compromise with Likud.