Rejecting Liberman ultimatum, Likud says he’s bluffing ‘with no cards’

Source in Netanyahu’s party says it’s highly implausible the Yisrael Beytenu leader would commit political suicide to support a Gantz-led minority government

Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman (left) and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman (left) and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A Likud official on Sunday dismissed Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman’s ultimatum to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party and its rival, Blue and White, suggesting the former defense minister was bluffing and would not commit political “suicide” by teaming up with the Arab lawmakers to support a minority government led by the centrist party.

In a dramatic announcement Saturday night, Liberman presented a challenge to Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, saying that if they do not accept tough compromises in order to form a coalition together, he will back the other candidate and renege on his pledge to only support a national unity government.

“Gantz must accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence, and Netanyahu should say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc,” Liberman told Channel 12 news.

Liberman implied that if Netanyahu refused to separate from the 55-MK bloc of right-wing and religious parties, he could support a minority government led by Gantz and supported from the outside by Yisrael Beytenu. Such an arrangement would see the hawkish right-wing leader allied with the Arab lawmakers, whom he has long accused of “disloyalty” and “terror support.”

Shas party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the six year anniversary of the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Liberman is playing poker without cards,” an unnamed Likud official told the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily in a report published Sunday.

“What emerges from Liberman’s statements is that Benny Gantz has three options: elections, unity with Likud based on the president’s framework, or a minority government with the Arabs and Liberman. The last seems a highly implausible scenario,” said the official, describing it as political “suicide.”

“The prospect of Liberman going with that option is slim. Even if he does act on it, its candidacy will be very short and will eventually, after several months, lead to additional elections in which Liberman will pay a heavy price,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman at a joint press conference on May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If new elections are called as a result of the failure of a minority government, “we will start out with much better conditions. Even if we sit in the opposition for a few months, it’s not too bad,” said the Likud source.

“He’s threatening but his gun is pretty empty,” the Likud official said.

Also Sunday, several Likud ministers took to public radio to declare they would not abandon their right-wing and ultra-Orthodox political allies, rebuffing Liberman’s ultimatum.

“We cannot give up on the bloc,” Communications Minister David Amsalem told Israel Radio. “We won’t desert the Haredim.”

“Our bloc is stable, strong, and harmonious,” added Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. “In the next government, too, we’ll be going together.”

There was no comment from Gantz or Blue and White officials on the ultimatum.

President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Gantz with attempting to form a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September 17 elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed are seen as just as slim, with the Netanyahu-led bloc of 55 lawmakers Likud formed with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious factions vowing to only enter a government together.

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)

The bloc has been a major stumbling block in talks between Likud and Blue and White. The two major parties have regularly blamed each other for the lack of progress in negotiations and sought to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another, third round of elections.

The president’s unity government scheme would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as premier.

In setting out his idea in September, Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

Speaking to Channel 12 on Saturday night, Liberman, whose party’s eight Knesset seats have positioned him as kingmaker, laid out his demand.

“I expect both people to make the right decisions. I intend to appeal to both of them and request a meeting this week. Whoever makes the wrong decision — we in Yisrael Beytenu will draw the conclusions. Whoever makes the wrong decision — we will support the other side,” the Yisrael Beytenu chief said.

Liberman said that “the most important thing for the State of Israel right now is to prevent a third-round election and to establish a unity government. I believe that both [Netanyahu and Gantz] are responsible” and want what is best for the State of Israel.

It was Liberman’s refusal to join a Likud-led right-wing government after the April vote that led to Netanyahu dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections. In the second vote, he jumped from five seats to eight, making him a potential kingmaker.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Thursday, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu said that they had reached understandings on several issues in coalition talks, the first such public announcement of progress since Gantz was tasked with forming a government.

“During the day the negotiation team discussed key issues on the agenda, in order to move forward with formulating the principles of a broad, liberal national unity government,” the parties said in a statement.

Liberman’s ultimatum came a day after Netanyahu named New Right MK Naftali Bennett as temporary defense minister, in a move seen as shoring up support with his right-wing religious allies amid the coalition deadlock and his expected indictment for corruption.

In his Saturday interview, Liberman said he was “not surprised” by the appointment and wished Bennett “the best of luck.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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