Likud floats possible coalition compromise in attempt to avert new elections

But agreement to ‘preserve status quo’ on religion and state currently doesn’t include Avigdor Liberman, who refuses to join coalition if Haredi draft law isn’t passed unchanged

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at a meeting in the Knesset, on November 25, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at a meeting in the Knesset, on November 25, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud’s chief negotiator, MK Yariv Levin, said Sunday that the ruling party had reached an agreement with three out of five of its likely coalition partners — with the exception of Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu — to “preserve the status quo in all legislation pertaining to church and state.”

He did not elaborate on the specifics of the proposal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an emergency meeting with ministers in his Likud party on Sunday in light of the impasse in coalition negotiations that is threatening to send Israel to new elections.

Four days before the deadline to form a coalition, Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners. The sticking point is a bill on the ultra-Orthodox military draft, which the Haredi political parties seek to soften, and which must swiftly be re-legislated under Supreme Court order.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, has insisted he won’t budge from a Defense Ministry-drafted version of the bill regulating the number of ultra-Orthodox seminary students drafted to the military.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, right, attends a Knesset House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Thus, Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, with its five seats, for a majority.

Netanyahu reportedly criticized Liberman during the Likud meeting, saying the ultra-Orthodox parties had compromised “90 percent” while Liberman had not.

“This crisis can be solved but apparently [they] don’t want that,” Netanyahu said, according to Hebrew-language media reports, adding that “if there is no other option, we will submit a bill to dissolve the Knesset of Wednesday.”

The premier also issued a cryptic warning to the smaller parties, saying they “don’t understand that the moment there are new elections, there are two big millstones that won’t leave anything around them.”

That could possibly be a warning that, were elections to be held again, the two biggest parties, Likud and Blue and White — each of which now holds 35 seats — could gain even more power at the expense of the likes of Yisrael Beytenu.

Earlier on Sunday, Likud said it was bracing for snap polls if no compromise could be reached with Liberman in the coming days to persuade him to enter the next government.

“It’s unfortunate. I don’t think we need to drag the country through another election, but perhaps there is someone who wants that,” said Netanyahu at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

As reports in Hebrew-language media signaled that Likud was poised to open its campaign headquarters and cancel its party primaries in anticipation of a new election, the ruling party said it was preparing for such a scenario but still held out hope for a breakthrough.

Supporters of Likud wave party and national flags along with a sign showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they gather at the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is formulating a solution that will allow for the establishment of a right-wing government with the [military] draft law,” Likud said.

“At the same time, in the event Liberman continues to insist on felling the government, Likud will start preparing for elections,” it added.

In a statement, Liberman dismissed the reports, while calling for Likud to stop “lying.”

“I turn to Likud members: Stop lying to the people of Israel and telling them that Yisrael Beytenu is looking for excuses not to enter the government,” he wrote on Facebook. “Commit to passing the draft law in its second and third readings [into law] in the original version, and you’ll see it all work out. Try us.”

Liberman said on Saturday that his party would endorse no candidate for prime minister except Netanyahu, but also that Israel may be headed for fresh elections unless Likud agrees to a number of Yisrael Beytenu’s core demands, chiefly passing the so-called Haredi draft bill.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Without Yisrael Beytenu, Likud could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman and his party do not vote against such a coalition.

However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon ruled out the possibility during a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu and other party leaders. Kahlon, head of the four-seat Kulanu, said such a government would have trouble functioning and would quickly unravel, according to the Haaretz daily.

Liberman boycotted Thursday’s meeting, during which Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners vowed to push ahead with attempts to form a government.

Most political analysts last Thursday still assessed that Netanyahu would manage to persuade all five other parties — UTJ, Shas, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — to join his Likud in a 65-seat coalition ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.

However, analysts say that Netanyahu may actually be able to buy himself another 14 days beyond the deadline, exercising a never-before-used legal provision.

If that doesn’t happen, President Reuven Rivlin will have to decide whether to task another Knesset member with forming the next coalition. Since the prevailing assessment is that nobody will be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, two months after the April 9 vote.

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