Netanyahu, castigated by Liberman, says he will work to expand coalition

Former FM slams PM for ‘cheating voters,’ says he turned down defense portfolio; Herzog says he won’t form unity government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem,  May 11, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 11, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he would work to expand his narrow coalition, as party leaders in the opposition lashed out at the prime minister and insisted they wouldn’t join a Netanyahu-led government.

His former close colleague Avigdor Liberman launched a vicious attack on him, calling him a cheat and a liar, and accusing him of “cheating the voters.”

Netanyahu said he would continue to work to establish the “widest government we can achieve,” without naming the parties he hoped to include in the coalition. Liberman’s comments underlined his opposition to joining, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog stressed he would not prop up Netanyahu, and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid accused him of betraying the public trust.

“I will continue to make an effort to expand the government, make it the widest government we can achieve, a large government and a large Knesset,” Netanyahu said.

The five-party coalition — Likud, Kulanu, Jewish Home, Shas, and United Torah Judaism — currently has 61 MKs facing an opposition of 59 members of Knesset.

Speaking at a Likud faction meeting, the prime minister also said that the division of ministerships among members of his Likud party would “not be an easy task.”

“It is not an easy task before me — how to divide up the portfolios between so many excellent Knesset members,” Netanyahu went on.

Netanyahu was scheduled to hold consultations with Likud lawmakers on Monday to determine who will receive the various ministerial posts. A number of internal fights are expected within the party, with some dozen senior politicians squabbling for a handful of ministerial posts.

Netanyahu also pledged to “make an effort to lower the cost of housing and the cost of living, not just for the people who voted for us, but for everyone.”

Meanwhile, former foreign minister Liberman, who refused to join the coalition after citing his objections to deals signed with other partners, pummeled Netanyahu in comments he made at the start of his party meeting. He said he had rejected the prime minister’s recent offers, which included the much sought-after defense portfolio.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman during a party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem May 11, 2015. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman during a party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on May 11, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

It was Liberman’s first press conference since he dropped a political bombshell last week by announcing he would not join Netanyahu’s coalition.

“I have more friends among Likud ministers and activists than Netanyahu has,” Liberman taunted. He also dismissed recent accusations by Likud officials and the media that he had misled his voters by siding with the opposition, against all expectations.

“The man who really cheated the voters was Netanyahu,” Liberman opined. “There is no doubt that the man cheated, lied… to voters from the former Soviet Union. All the things he said about helping to absorb new immigrants — there is no trace of that in any of the coalition agreements.”

The Yisrael Beytenu leader explained that despite his refusal to join the Likud party in the coalition, he does not intend to side with opposition leaders either.

“We will be an opposition, but won’t team up with the left-wing opposition; we will be an alternative from the right,” he claimed.

Herzog opened his party’s meeting by repeating his determination to remain in the opposition, despite persistent rumors to the contrary.

“For two months, Netanyahu has not been able to put together a government and propose it for approval by the Knesset,” he said, referring to the coalition negotiations that followed the March 17 elections and that only ended with 11th-hour agreements last week.

MK Tzipi Livni (L) MK Isaac Herzog (C) and MK Eitan Cabel (R) of the Zionist Camp party seen during a party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 11, 2015. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Tzipi Livni (left), MK Isaac Herzog (center) and MK Eitan Cabel (right) of the Zionist Union at a party meeting in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 11, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“There is an opportunity to prevent the establishment of a terrible government for Israel,” Herzog said. “I don’t intend to help him establish a government of 61, but to replace him. If not in this Knesset, then in another round of elections.”

Last week, Likud officials confirmed that Netanyahu was hoping to expand his coalition to include the Zionist Union slate in a broad unity government. One party official told Israel Radio at the time that Netanyahu was keeping the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself in the hopes of later handing the top cabinet post to Herzog, should he (Netanyahu) manage to persuade the Zionist Union to join the coalition in the coming weeks.

During the Yesh Atid faction meeting on Monday, Lapid — who served as finance minister during the previous government until he was fired by Netanyahu — continued his assault on a plan by the prime minister to increase the number of ministers by delaying an amendment passed in the last government.

“Netanyahu was not chosen to be a prime minister only of those close to him, not just the prime minister of sectarian parties that help him to buy power with money, not the prime minister that demeans the Knesset, and demeans the law, and demeans the whole democratic process,” said Lapid. “The first decision that Netanyahu took was to betray the public trust.”

Lapid’s comments came before the Knesset began to debate freezing an amendment to the Basic Law: Government, introduced by the previous government, that limited the number of ministers to just 18. Netanyahu wants to delay applying the cap, to enable him to appoint 20 ministers and four more deputies to satisfy demands from his own party members who missed out on top jobs that were handed out to coalition partners.

However, opposition MKs have begun a vigorous defense of the law as it stands, exploring the legal difficulties in changing the legislation as well as promising to filibuster a Knesset debate on Monday, which was scheduled to include a first reading of the bill to remove the minister limit.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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