In their first face-to-face talks in months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman met Thursday to discuss Liberman’s proposal for a unity government. But their talks ended after barely an hour, and did not make any headway.
With negotiations between Likud and the Blue and White party stalled, the meeting’s failure makes another round of elections look increasingly likely. Nonetheless, neither Likud nor Yisrael Beytenu ruled out the possibility of further talks.
“We’ll make every effort to prevent third elections,” Liberman said in the Knesset on Thursday afternoon, shortly after he was pictured having a one-on-one conversation there with Blue and White’s No. 2 Yair Lapid.
Liberman played a central role in plunging Israel into September 17’s elections, having refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties after the April 9 vote. With the eight seats it won last month, his Yisrael Beytenu party again holds the balance of power between Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs, and Blue and White rival Benny Gantz’s center-left-Arab bloc of 54 MKs. Liberman and three Arab MKs have not endorsed either candidate for prime minister. A former defense and foreign minister under Netanyahu, Liberman is urging the establishment of a “liberal, nationalist, wide” coalition, comprising Likud, Blue and White, and his own Yisrael Beytenu, with no ultra-Orthodox, “messianist” or Arab parties.
“Netanyahu suggested that Liberman join the government as soon as possible to contribute to the establishment of a unity government,” a Likud spokesperson said after the discussion. “No breakthrough was achieved at the meeting.”
“The prime minister will update the heads of the national camp bloc in a meeting,” the spokesperson said, referring to the chiefs of the Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.
Yisrael Beytenu said: “At the meeting MK Liberman stated that given the security and economic challenges, a unity government is the order of the day and additional elections will not significantly change the political map. The right path is to find common ground between Yisrael Beytenu, Likud, and Blue and White, and only after we will discuss the distribution of portfolios and the premiership rotation.”
Liberman made clear Wednesday evening that his opposition to a coalition including the full 55-MK bloc of Netanyahu’s supporters, including the two ultra-Orthodox parties, remained implacable. Reiterating his insistence on a unity government comprising only Likud, Blue and White and his own Yisrael Beytenu, Liberman stressed Wednesday evening, “We will not be partners” in any other government.
Liberman delivered the same message when he met last week with Gantz.
Earlier Wednesday, Liberman had said that “if by Yom Kippur [next Tuesday evening] there is no breakthrough, Yisrael Beytenu will present its own offer to the two factions [Likud and Blue and White].”
Netanyahu and Liberman had a very public falling out in May when Liberman’s refusal to join a government due to policies favoring the ultra-Orthodox led to the premier’s failure to form a coalition, prompting a second round of elections in five months. Netanyahu has since branded the Yisrael Beytenu chief as “part of the left” and the two have often been at each other’s throats.
Thursday was apparently their first sit-down since then.
Likud and Blue and White have held talks in recent days on the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement suggested by President Reuven Rivlin, whereby each party would hold the premiership for two years in the next government.
Acting speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein said on Thursday that Netanyahu would be prepared to take a leave of absence if he were indicted in the graft cases against him.
He was apparently referring to a plan put forward by Rivlin whereby Netanyahu could take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the three criminal probes in which he faces charges, including one count of bribery, pending a hearing.
Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority. A legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” would theoretically allow Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he is formally charged and enable Gantz to avoid serving in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment.
But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement, among other issues.
Blue and White officials have said it is Likud’s insistence on Netanyahu being the first to lead under such a “rotation” deal, as well as its insistence it will only form a government that includes smaller right-wing and ultra-Orthodox religious parties, that are holding up the negotiations.
But Likud has said it is actually Blue and White No. 2 Lapid that is the problem. When they formed Blue and White, Lapid and Gantz agreed on a rotation deal of their own, with Gantz first serving as prime minister in any government they formed, and Lapid later taking over.
Likud officials have been claiming in recent days that it is Lapid’s refusal to give up this agreement in favor of the Netanyahu-Gantz arrangement that is the issue. Edelstein reiterated the charge on Friday, saying Blue and White had rejected Rivlin’s “bold” proposal due to “internal reasons.”
Following the elections, the leaders of the national-religious Yamina alliance and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties signed an agreement with Netanyahu pledging to enter coalition negotiations as one 55-strong bloc led by the Likud leader. Liberman and Gantz have both blasted the move, with the latter pointing to it as a key obstacle in his party’s coalition talks with Likud.
Gantz heads a 54-strong bloc of MKs who have endorsed him as prime minister, but the 10 Arab MKs in the bloc would not be part of a coalition led by him.
Gantz canceled a planned meeting with the premier on Wednesday, saying the state of talks between the party’s negotiating teams did not justify it.
Blue and White officials said Likud was not negotiating in good faith, and was only seeking to blame them for the failure to form a government.
Likud had framed the meeting between the two leaders as Netanyahu’s final attempt to reach agreements before he admits defeat in his attempt to form a coalition and allows the president to task someone else with the job.
If Netanyahu admits defeat, Rivlin would probably then invite Gantz to try to build a majority, but his Blue and White party considers it extremely unlikely that Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud would revolt against their leader, and thus see no real path for Gantz to form a government.
If Gantz also fails, Rivlin could seek a third candidate, or ask on of the first two to try again. If, after 21 days, this effort also fails, Rivlin would initiate a process leading to new elections.