Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday condemned Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s strident criticism of his ultra-Orthodox political allies, whom Liberman had earlier accused of anti-Zionism.
The prime minister also issued an eleventh-hour plea to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to build a unity government, imploring him to drop his partner Yair Lapid and pursue a coalition with Likud in the final hours of coalition talks. Israel was “becoming a joke,” he said, given its failure to for a unity government, with “even the best of our friends asking, ‘What is happening to you?’.”
Liberman was attacked from all across the political spectrum following a fiery speech in which he blamed both Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz for the failure to reach a unity government and ruled out joining a government with either the “anti-Zionist” ultra-Orthodox parties or the “fifth column” Arab lawmakers, signaling Israel was headed for a third election in a year.
Despite being accused of waging a campaign of incitement against Arab politicians, describing cooperation with them as a national emergency and a terror attack, Netanyahu leveled criticism at Liberman for his exclusionary comments.
Speaking during a meeting of the 55 right-wing and Haredi lawmakers that support him for prime minister, Netanyahu said “we must not exclude any group, not the ultra-Orthodox, other Jews or non-Jews.”
“Whoever supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is a partner,” he said.
Netanyahu’s comments came days after he accused Arab Israeli lawmakers of supporting terrorism and seeking to “destroy the country,” prompting accusations of incitement to violence and a reprimand by President Reuven Rivlin.
Liberman earlier had remarked: “We should say it as it is — the Joint List is really a fifth column. But unfortunately the Haredi parties are also becoming more and more anti-Zionist.”
“Netanyahu is enslaving the entire Likud movement to the ultra-Orthodox,” he added.
While Liberman has called Arabs “a fifth column” before, and drawn criticism for it, his attack on the ultra-Orthodox as “anti-Zionist” and part of an anti-Zionist alliance with Arab parties was new. His comments were carried live by most major Israeli media outlets.
Responding to the speech, Haredi lawmakers referring to the Yisrael Beytenu leader as “anti-Semitic” and a “czar,” and to his speech as a “war crime” and a “horror show.”
Hours before Gantz’s mandate to form a government expired, Liberman on Wednesday announced that he would not support either a minority government headed by the Blue and White leader or a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu, apparently setting Israel up for third elections in under a year.
“There is no chance. We will not join either a narrow right- or left-wing government or a minority government. Whatever sort of government that would be, it would not survive and would not be able to function to do what is needed for the country,” Liberman told the packed Yisrael Beytenu faction room in the Knesset.
Speaking alongside his allies hours later, Netanyahu urged Gantz to abandon his party’s No. 2, Lapid, and join Likud in forming a unity government. Likud has long accused Blue and White’s Lapid of preventing the formation of a Blue and White-Likud coalition.
“I tell Benny Gantz, it’s not too late,” said Netanyahu. “Let’s sit together and we can announce already this evening that we are establishing a liberal nation unity government. I call on you Gantz: Get rid of Lapid’s veto. Do the right thing. Come to a unity government. You need to leave those who don’t want to do the right thing, and do the right thing.”
Should Gantz fail to form a coalition by Wednesday at midnight, Knesset members have a further 21 days to choose another MK to be given the mandate to form a government, or decide to head back to elections. Gantz was tasked with building a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so.
Netanyahu and Gantz traded accusations late Tuesday night in statements issued shortly after the conclusion of a one-hour meeting they had at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in which efforts for a unity government appeared to break down.
Though Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, with Liberman’s support he could have theoretically formed a minority government with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.
However, the odds of the staunchly right-wing Liberman — who has referred to Arab MKs as traitors and has suggested transferring Arab Israeli cities to the control of a future Palestinian state — providing support for such an option always appeared slim.
Netanyahu last December called early elections, which were held in April. In May, however, the Likud leader failed to cobble together a government after Liberman refused to join unless a bill to enlist ultra-Orthodox students into the military was passed into law unchanged — a demand rejected by United Torah Judaism and Shas. A second vote was held in September, leading to the current deadlock. Should a third round of elections be held this year, it is expected to be scheduled for March.