Likud lashes out at Liberman for choosing opposition

Official calls Israel Beytenu head ‘cynical’; Kahlon and Deri urge broader coalition

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset, May 4, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset, May 4, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman’s announcement that he would not join a governing coalition sent shockwaves through the halls of power in Jerusalem Monday, with Likud officials reacting angrily to the news and other politicians expressing concern over whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could rule with a shaky 61-59 seat Knesset majority.

A senior Likud official on Monday accused Liberman of being “cynical” and “the most opportunistic” politician, and charged that the foreign minister was involved in a “putsch” of the prime minister in the last government.

The allegations came hours after Liberman dropped a political bombshell and announced he was headed to the opposition.

At the same time, leaders of the Kulanu and Shas parties, two of the prime minister’s allies, on Monday urged a broader government.

The centrist Yesh Atid, by contrast, welcomed Liberman’s decision to not join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “fire-sale coalition.”

Earlier Monday, Liberman said his Yisrael Beytenu would not join a new coalition with the ruling Likud, throwing a wrench in Netanyahu’s attempts to form a government days before a looming deadline.

Liberman, who also announced he would resign as foreign minister, said that he chose to be in the opposition rather that serve in a government that he called opportunist, conformist and not “nationalistic.”

“Liberman is the last person who should preach about opportunism,” an unnamed Likud member told Channel 2. “He is a cynical politician, the most opportunistic, who plotted a putsch against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and planned to be an alternative candidate for the premiership after the election.”

In December, Netanyahu fired then-justice minister Tzipi Livni and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid and dissolved the coalition, alleging that the two had clandestinely worked together to oust him in a so-called “putsch.”

Liberman was not publicly linked to that alleged intrigue.

“The unequivocal results of the election, in which the Likud won 30 seats, caused Liberman’s schemes to fail, and his plans were dashed,” the Likud source continued.

He charged that Liberman was working to bring a left-wing coalition to power, “serving foreign interests in Israel and abroad, and in complete contradiction to the promises to his voters to support a nationalistic government.”

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon on Monday voiced concern about the emerging shaky coalition, and said he would encourage the prime minister to incorporate additional parties or persuade Liberman to join the coalition.

Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant of Kulanu, Aryeh Deri of Shas and Yaakov Litzman of UTJ (from left to right) at the swearing in ceremony for the 20th Knesset, on March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant of Kulanu, Aryeh Deri of Shas and Yaakov Litzman of UTJ (from left to right) at the swearing-in ceremony for the 20th Knesset, on March 31, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Today, unfortunately, we were informed that we would probably head to a 61-[seat] government,” Kahlon said in a statement. “I said in the past, and I say today, that a 61-[seat] government is not a good government, certainly not in the face of the tasks facing us.”

Kahlon said that, since he signed a coalition agreement, his hands are “a bit tied,” but said he would speak to Netanyahu. “And I have no doubt that he will work to expand the coalition, will appeal to other parties or convince Liberman to return.”

Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, who is expected to sign a coalition deal with Netanyahu by the Wednesday deadline, said his party “always wanted a broad government.” Deri said he hopes that “efforts will be made in the future to widen it.” He also noted, however, that “sometimes a small and homogeneous coalition is better than a wider one.”

The Yesh Atid party released a statement congratulating Liberman for his decision to join the opposition, rather than “the fire-sale coalition” of Netanyahu.

Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog again ruled out joining Netanyahu in a national unity government. At a Knesset meeting of his faction, Herzog vowed to lead “a determined and focused opposition.”

Liberman announced his decision at a press conference in the Knesset on Monday.

“We have come to a unanimous decision that it would not be right for us to join the coalition. We chose our principles over cabinet seats,” Liberman claimed.

The announcement puts Netanyahu in a corner as he attempts to cobble together a government before a May 7 deadline. Yisrael Beytenu’s six seats were thought key to bolstering Netanyahu’s nascent government, which may now have to rule with a razor-thin 61-seat majority.

Netanyahu has thus far signed coalition agreements only with the Kulanu and United Torah Judaism factions, giving him 46 seats. He is considered close to closing deals with Jewish Home and Shas to give him a majority.

Liberman said that the prime minister’s Likud party made concessions in coalition agreements with other parties that Yisrael Beytenu could not accept.

“The Jewish-state Bill was so important in the last Knesset — suddenly no one is talking about it,” he went on, referring to the controversial legislation proposed last year that would enshrine Israel as a Jewish state.

Liberman further criticized Netanyahu for his weak stance toward terrorism, and charged that the future government “had no intention of uprooting Hamas in Gaza.”

The comments echoed ones made by Liberman over the summer that exposed a rift between him and Netanyahu. The two ran together under a joint list in the 2013 election.

Liberman also lamented that the future government would likely not permit the building of new homes in the major settlement blocs.

In recent weeks, Liberman has criticized Netanyahu’s concessions to ultra-Orthodox parties on the issues of conversion and recruitment to the Israel Defense Forces.

Both issues are important to the electorate of Yisrael Beytenu, which is largely composed of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Liberman also accused Netanyahu of planning a coalition reshuffle in the future, predicting that the prime minister would bring the Labor Party into the government after it holds a primary election next year.

Tamar Pileggi, Stuart Winer, and Jonathan Beck contributed to this report.

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