Netanyahu, Liberman hold ‘positive’ meeting as coalition deadline nears

PM, Yisrael Beytenu leader say they discussed unity government, will meet again; Gantz has until Wednesday to form government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head, Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head, Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Sunday for coalition talks aimed at building a unity government, with the hour-long conversation described by both sides as “positive.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman in the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv,” both parties said in a joint statement. “The meeting lasted about an hour. The conversation was substantive and positive and focused on ways to establish a unity government.”

Netanyahu and Liberman agreed to meet again “to complete” their talks, the statement said.

Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party holds the balance of power in the Knesset.

Liberman, a right-wing secularist, campaigned on forcing a unity government between Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White that does not include ultra-Orthodox or “messianist” parties, if neither could form a government without him after the September 17 vote.

In a dramatic falling out with the Likud leader, Liberman precipitated the September vote by refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition following the April elections, when he clashed with ultra-Orthodox parties over legislation to regulate military service for Haredi men.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, left, and Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan, November 14, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Earlier Sunday, negotiators from Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu reported “real progress” in coalition talks, specifically on religion and state issues, three days before the deadline to form a government.

In a joint statement, the two parties said “real progress has been made in drafting the basic policy principles, in particular on matters of religion and state.”

The parties said their representatives would meet again on Monday and Tuesday.

Blue and White and Labor-Gesher negotiators met later on Sunday.

“During the meeting, significant progress was made toward agreeing on the basic principles of the future government, including those related to the settlements and agriculture. The parties are expected to meet again soon,” the parties said in a joint statement on Sunday night.

President Reuven Rivlin presents Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the mandate to form a new Israeli government, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form one, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in the aftermath of the inconclusive September elections, Gantz has until Wednesday to do so, after which Knesset members may choose a candidate to be given the mandate or decide to head back to elections — the third in less than a year.

In a twist of fate, this week or early next week will also likely see Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announce his decision on whether to charge the premier in three corruption cases, according to reports, further complicating Netanyahu’s position, since Gantz has vowed not to sit in a government under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, though he could presumably form a minority government with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Gantz met Thursday with Liberman.

After the meeting, Liberman hinted at disagreements at the top of Blue and White, saying that all leaders from the party must announce they accept a unity plan, pushed by President Reuven Rivlin, that would see Gantz take over as prime minister only in case Netanyahu is indicted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The political sphere was buzzing Sunday with coalition jockeying, meetings and mutual accusations as Netanyahu stepped up his warnings against an “insane” potential minority government backed by Arab-majority parties.

Netanyahu’s campaign is seemingly aimed at leaving Gantz with no choice but to agree to a unity government with the Likud leader remaining as prime minister or admit his failure to form a coalition and risk new elections.

After the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Netanyahu met with his 55 MK-strong bloc of allied religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. The premier has insisted on holding negotiations with Blue and White only as part of that broader bloc and not just as Likud leader — one of the reasons unity talks have not yielded even minimal progress.

On Sunday evening, he is expected to speak at an “emergency” rally against a minority government at Expo Tel Aviv.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu held a conference call with Likud ministers and MKs in which he warned of “an emergency situation,” claiming Blue and White had decided to try and establish a minority government shored up by the outside support of Arab Knesset members. Netanyahu called on his colleagues to help organize mass public opposition to such a move. It was not clear what Netanyahu’s comments were based on, and there was no statement to that effect by the leaders of Blue and White, who insisted they continued to seek a unity coalition. Netanyahu has made similar assertions on numerous occasions in the past.

A third election, Netanyahu told officials, would be “a disaster.” But “a minority government dependent on the Joint List is even worse.” He said such a government, “dependent on supporters of Islamic Jihad and Hamas,” would be “historically dangerous” to the Jewish state.

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh (R) and party member Ahmad Tibi arrive for a meeting with party members at the Knesset on September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi told Kan public radio in an interview Sunday morning that, while there have been talks with Blue and White on a potential minority government, there has not been an official proposal yet.

“We won’t elaborate on the talks, so that Netanyahu keeps being hysterical,” Tibi said. “We are willing to do a lot to kick out Netanyahu, the inciter and liar.”

Fellow Joint List lawmaker Mansour Abbas told Army Radio that Netanyahu himself had also held talks on a minority government after the April elections, but eventually chose to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections.

A minority government hinges on the support of Liberman, who has previously campaigned on tough policies against Arab Israelis and who regularly denounces them as illegitimate political figures.

Liberman has not yet decided whether to back such a government, and on Sunday told the Ynet website that all options were on the table and that his party would make a decision by Tuesday night.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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