Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman indicated Friday that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s sound defeat of challenger Gideon Sa’ar for the head of the party would not change coalition calculus for him.
“The results of the Likud primary haven’t changed a thing,” Liberman wrote on Facebook, signaling disappointment with the party for continuing to throw its weight behind Netanyahu.
The Likud’s main challenger, the Blue and White party, has so far remained silent on the results.
Netanyahu won some 72.5 percent of the vote in a leadership contest Thursday, handily defeating challenger Gideon Sa’ar.
A potential kingmaker, Liberman and his faction have instead played spoiler in the last two rounds of coalition talks, refusing to join either Likud’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox partners or a potential left-center bloc, instead insisting that a unity coalition be formed between Likud and Blue and White.
Most Israelis blame Liberman and Netanyahu for the year-long political impasse. A third round of voting has been set for March 2.
In his Facebook post, Liberman contended that both Likud and Blue and White were in the pocket of the ultra-Orthodox.
“Today it’s clearer than ever that Netanyahu and [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz are not interested in a liberal unity government, but rather a narrow government with the ultra-Orthodox, who will just go with whoever gives them the most money.”
“There’s nothing new under the sun and the world is as it is,” he wrote.
Netanyahu allied himself with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ parties as well as right-wing Yamina after a second vote in September, forming a large negotiation bloc that critics say helped stymie unity talks with Blue and White. Shas head Aryeh Deri has indicated the bloc will stay together for the third round of voting.
Liberman, a hard-line right-wing secularist, has refused to sit in a coalition with either the ultra-Orthodox or Arab parties. However, he has shied from coming out forcefully against immunity for Netanyahu in his criminal cases, leading to hopes by some in the Likud that he could be convinced to join their bloc.
Thursday’s leadership contest was the first significant challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership of the Likud in more than a decade, but he maintained the support of the vast majority of the party’s Knesset members and its prominent local leaders and activists, and can thus utilize the result as a boost ahead of Israel’s third general elections in under a year.
He hailed the win as a “huge victory,” as results came in early Friday.
Sa’ar later conceded defeat, and pledged support for Netanyahu and Likud ahead of the March 2 vote.
“The contest was vital to the Likud and its democratic character,” he said.
Sa’ar had argued that Netanyahu, having failed twice to form a government after the April and September elections, would lead the right-wing bloc to a third failure, and that he, by contrast, would ensure the right retained power.
A series of polls in recent weeks have indicated a Sa’ar-led Likud would win fewer seats in a third election than under Netanyahu, but the overall right-wing bloc might be larger — potentially enabling it to break the impasse and form a majority government.