Blue and White said to vow no coalition without Liberman

Parties jostle for position, hold talks in bid to break coalition impasse

Ahead of Rivlin consultations, factions signal eagerness to reach across traditional fault lines; ultra-Orthodox may be willing to work with secularist Lapid

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The newly elected factions of the 22nd Knesset spent Thursday engaging in a dizzying array of political maneuvering, as they jostled for position ahead of consultations with the president over who should be Israel’s next prime minister, set to kick off Sunday.

Blue and White and Likud each sought leverage in the coming unity government talks, while smaller parties, from leftist Democratic Camp and center-left Labor-Gesher to ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas, looked for ways to ensure they had a seat in the future coalition, no matter who runs it.

As election officials counted the final votes, Blue and White maintained a lead over Likud of some 35,000 votes nationwide, giving it 33 seats to Likud’s 31. While neither party has enough support from its base to form a governing coalition of 61, each side is looking to present President Reuven Rivlin with the strongest case for being given the first shot at building a government.

The possible kingmaker in the coming talks, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, leaked contradictory statements on Thursday, first claiming it would back Gantz for premier in a bid to ensure he establishes a secular unity coalition, then suggesting it many not recommend anyone to Rivlin.

Yisrael Beytenu is thought to be worried that Likud and Blue and White, which together would have an unassailable majority in parliament, could end up in a unity government without it — or worse, with ultra-Orthodox parties.

According to Channel 13, Blue and White has been eager to allay those concerns, with Gantz reportedly delivering a hard promise to Liberman that the centrist party won’t join any coalition without him.

Blue and White, for its part, fears that if Liberman concludes he could be left out in the cold in a Likud-Blue and White alliance, he may turn to Netanyahu first, giving the incumbent prime minister his rightist-religious majority.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s own brother-in-law, Hagai Ben Arzi, publicly urged him on Thursday to try to turn Liberman at all costs. “Offer Liberman a rotation agreement,” making him prime minister for half the term, Ben Arzi suggested in the right-wing Arutz 7 news site.

But Liberman has already vowed repeatedly not to sit with Haredi parties, and has insisted he will not back off his demand that a law be passed regulating ultra-Orthodox conscription into the military, opposed by Shas and UTJ.

The Haredi parties, meanwhile, who know they would be left out if Gantz’s demand for a “liberal unity government” is implemented, tried to show on Thursday that they were nothing if not accommodating of a unity government.

Shas and UTJ both made dramatic pronouncements Thursday evening about their willingness to sit with Blue and White’s secularist No. 2 Yair Lapid, long a persona non-grata in the eyes of the Haredi world’s rabbinic leadership.

Lawmakers from the Degel Hatorah party, part of the UTJ faction, promised in a meeting with Netanyahu Thursday evening to speak to their spiritual leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, about lifting their boycott of Lapid, signaling flexibility in the upcoming talks.

UTJ’s other faction, Agudat Yisrael, will similarly consult with their rabbis on the issue, though Channel 12 reported Thursday that they were waiting to hear Kanievsky’s opinion before moving forward.

A statement put out by Shas leader Aryeh Deri expressed willingness to sit with Lapid, despite a bitter campaign in which the party accused him of anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Lapid is loathed in ultra-Orthodox circles for his secularist policies during his stint in the government in 2013-2014, which they claim targeted the Haredi population.

After the report of UTJ’s promise leaked, the party clarified to Channel 13 that Lapid had to make the first move by lifting his own announced boycott of Netanyahu.

The Haredi parties are backing Netanyahu, pundits explained, because they view him as their only hope for preventing a “liberal unity government” without them.

Channel 11 noted in that regard that Blue and White itself may be planning to make overtures to Shas, which alone could give Gantz, the left and Liberman a slim 61-seat majority. It’s an unlikely mashup, but stranger things have happened in Israeli coalition politics.

More concretely, Gantz has plans to meet with Labor-Gesher’s leader Amir Peretz, whose six-seat faction could put Netanyahu’s rightist-Haredi coalition over the top at 61 seats.

That reality has Blue and White ready to offer unspecified but reportedly generous terms to the center-left party.

Co-chairmen of the Labor-Gesher party, Amir Peretz and Orly Levy-Avekasis talk to potential voters in an attempt to convince them to vote for the “Labor-Gesher party” at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Likud has already made its gambit for Labor-Gesher’s support in no uncertain terms.

According to several Hebrew-language outlets, Likud offered Peretz on Thursday to be the next finance minister, a tantalizing prospect for the former labor organizer and champion of the welfare state. It also offered his small faction two additional as-yet unnamed ministries, an increase in the minimum wage (long a Peretz priority), free college educations for soldiers upon their release from the military, and a universal mandatory pension law.

The offer is calculated to be so generous — and so expensive — that it would grant Peretz a ladder to climb down from his earlier vow not to serve in a Netanyahu government. He could now explain that to cling to his refusal would exact too high a cost from Israel’s working poor.

For now, according to Thursday night news reports, Peretz says he’s turned down the offer.

Likud negotiators told Channel 13 on Thursday they’re “not ruling out any party, not even Meretz,” whose leader Nitzan Horowitz heads the progressive Democratic Camp alliance.

Gantz on Thursday met with Horowitz, and the former general’s aides told reporters he is interested in meeting with Joint List leader Ayman Odeh to ask the alliance of Arab-majority factions to recommend him to the president.

Arab Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh reacts as the first results in the Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

According to Kan Thursday evening, Odeh is demanding specific policy promises as a precondition for his recommendation to the president.

A Blue and White response to the Kan report said Gantz believed he could obtain the president’s appointment as PM-designate without Joint List’s recommendation.

Earlier on Thursday, Netanyahu made an open call for Blue and White to join him in a unity government, likely one with a rotational prime minister.

Gantz, who has vowed to not join a coalition headed by Netanyahu, dismissed the offer as spin and said he would only support a government headed by him, appearing to stiffen his demands.

Even as right-wing politicians like New Right’s Ayelet Shaked and National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich have urged Gantz to drop his refusal to sit with Netanyahu, Likud lawmakers understand that if Gantz sticks to his guns, they’ll have to choose between ousting their longtime premier or taking the country to a third election.

Netanyahu, looking to stave off any party mutiny, decided on Thursday to schedule meetings with several top Likud power-brokers, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, in a bid to shore up his own position.

He knows he faces a bitter faction, which blames him for a lackluster campaign, and for shrinking the party’s 35-seat showing to just 31.

To mollify complaints that four lawmakers lost their seats because of the ill-advised second election, Netanyahu promised Likud’s lawmakers at a party meeting on Thursday that he would pass a law allowing ministers to vacate their Knesset seats, freeing up spots for the next few people in the line on the party’s slate.

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