Netanyahu calls urgent meeting with faction heads over stalled coalition talks

Liberman refuses to attend gathering, saying his Yisrael Beytenu party will not budge on demands; PM said considering minority government or new elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on May 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/POOL/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on May 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/POOL/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday summoned his prospective coalition partners to an urgent meeting at his office as coalition negotiations appeared to be at an impasse and a deadline for him to form a government loomed closer.

The meeting was called for 8 p.m. at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem but MK Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party was not expected to attend the gathering.

Media reports said that Netanyahu was looking at forming a minority government or calling fresh elections if he could not get the other parties to modify their demands.

Liberman is considered Netanyahu’s main obstacle in forming a coalition, as the premier’s Likud party needs Yisrael Beytenu’s five seats to secure a ruling majority.

The Likud party issued a statement saying that Liberman was “refusing to attend the meeting” and warned that his stubbornness could result in a left-wing government forming instead.

“Liberman committed to his voters that he will support establishing a right-wing government under Netanyahu,” the statement said. “At the moment he is using all kinds of excuses in order to prevent setting up that government, which may lead to the establishing of a left-wing government.”

On its Facebook page, Yisrael Beytenu wrote “the draft bill was a central topic on the Yisrael Benytenu agenda during the elections and after them. In the coalition negotiations we made it clear time after time that on this subject there will be no concessions.”

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

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party, was planning on attending, Globes reported, but Shas party leader Aryeh Deri was in the north of the country and unlikely to make it to the meeting.

The leader of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, MK Rafi Peretz, notified Netanyahu that his negotiating team will arrive instead of him, but only on the firm understanding that his party is given the justice and education ministries in the next government, Channel 13 news reported.

Earlier, sources told Hebrew-language media outlets that Liberman “blew up coalition talks” over legislation formalizing army draft exemptions for religious seminary students and other matters of religion and state. Liberman has clashed with ultra-Orthodox parties — also necessary for Netanyahu to form a coalition — over the issues and in particular the draft of seminary students, which they oppose.

Netanyahu had reportedly offered Liberman a return to his former position as defense minister. In addition to the Defense Ministry, Yisrael Beytenu would receive the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, a portfolio it also held in the last government, the Ynet website reported early Thursday. However, no agreement was reached.

With less than a week before the final May 28 deadline for Netanyahu to submit a coalition to the Knesset, negotiations appear to have stalled, and no agreement has been signed with any party. Without reconciling the conflicting demands of Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the other factions likely to join, Netanyahu will be unable to assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

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