Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman on Thursday refused to say whether he would recommend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister after September’s snap vote, but did say that he would not back Benny Gantz, the chairman of the centrist Blue and White party.
His comments came a day after the Knesset voted to disband and new elections were set for September 17, the second national vote within months. That move came after Likud’s intense, weeks-long efforts to bridge the gaps between Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties came up short.
In the wake of the April 9 elections, Liberman had repeatedly said he backed Netanyahu for prime minister but would only join the government if it committed to passing, unaltered, a Defense Ministry version of a bill that would regulate ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions. But ultra-Orthodox parties opposed that draft of the bill, and sought to soften its terms.
Netanyahu needed both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government, but ultimately failed to reach a formulation that both sides could agree to. On Wednesday night, mere minutes before the prime minister’s deadline for forming a coalition elapsed, he pushed through a bill to dissolve the Knesset and placed the blame squarely on Liberman.
In a fiery press conference in Tel Aviv the following afternoon, Liberman denounced as “delusions” Likud’s claims that he had thwarted a right-wing government and was a “leftist” who wants to topple Netanyahu. He added that the ruling party had in recent days made elaborate offers to all Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers in an attempt to convince them to defect to a Netanyahu-led coalition.
“It was the weirdest coalition negotiation I’ve seen,” he charged. “It seems like from the outset Netanyahu didn’t want Yisrael Beytenu in the government. All the while, he tried to lure lawmakers away from other parties, from everywhere. Everyone from Yisrael Beytenu received a lavish offer to leave the party, betray me and join the government. Likud was sure we would break under the pressure and blink.”
He refused to say whether Netanyahu was still his preferred candidate for prime minister. Asked whether he would recommend him as premier after the next elections, Liberman only said he would support a “sane” right-wing government. He said he was hoping his party would get 17-18 seats — an unrealistic goal, considering his current modest five — so that he would have more clout than the ultra-Orthodox parties in determining the makeup and platform of the next government.
Asked whether he could end up supporting the leader of Blue and White, he said: “Benny Gantz is an excellent man, but he’s not our candidate for prime minister.”
Netanyahu launched a diatribe against Liberman in the early hours of Thursday morning. “Avigdor Liberman is now part of the left,” he charged. “He brings down right-wing governments. Don’t believe him again. I will tell you about it tomorrow. Maybe I will tell you some things you don’t know. He deceived the electorate just to get votes.”
Likud’s coalition negotiations chief Yariv Levin later accused Liberman of bringing down two governments within months, citing the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s November resignation as defense minister, which precipitated the previous Knesset’s dissolution.
He also dismissed Liberman’s assertion that he was standing up for secular principles in the face of unreasonable demands by the ultra-Orthodox.
“If you vow in advance to enter a right-wing government, you know it will have the component of Haredi parties,” Levin said. “I feel that in the end the way he conducted himself was a deception of the voting public.”
During his press conference, Liberman rejected the accusation of leftism, noting that he, as opposed to Netanyahu, was a settler. “The man from Caesarea is accusing the man from Nokdim of being a leftist,” he scoffed.
Attempting to paint himself as more right-wing than Netanyahu, Liberman noted that the premier had voted for the 2005 Gaza disengagement, had apologized to Turkish “dictator” Recep Tayyip Erdogan as part of a rapprochement deal between Israel and Turkey, had not evacuated the Bedouin West Bank hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar despite right-wing pressure to do so, and decided recently to transfer $30 million in Qatari aid to Palestinian terror group Hamas after 700 rockets were fired from the Strip.
Liberman rejected the “campaign of propaganda and brainwashing, wild exaggerations and inappropriate discourse” from Likud, calling for more respectful public discourse. However, he immediately went on to accuse the ruling party of voicing “hallucinations and schizophrenic reactions” and repeatedly saying its campaign “needs a psychiatrist.”
“You can make a science fiction book out of everything we’ve heard and will continue to hear night and day,” he said.
Liberman said his party’s stance on the Haredi draft law had been consistent throughout and denied that ulterior motives or personal animus had played a part in his rejection of Likud’s offers: “Don’t believe speculations and rumors. This isn’t about right or left; this is about a cult of personality. Only Likud is to blame for going to the elections. What Likud was trying to build has no connection to a real right-wing government.
“The public is tired of the capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox. It has understood this was a sellout to the ultra-Orthodox. We want a right-wing government. We don’t want a halachic government,” he concluded.