Running out of time, Netanyahu may seek to swear-in coalition without majority

Avigdor Liberman still refusing to join new government; some in PM’s Likud are threatening new elections; most analysts think all will be worked out by Tuesday deadline

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, February 3, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, February 3, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may attempt to win Knesset approval for a coalition of only 60 members, one short of a majority, or may threaten prospective coalition partners with a resort to another general election, as he battles thus far in vain to finalize his new government with only five days to go.

Most political analysts on Thursday still assessed that Netanyahu would manage to persuade five other parties to join his Likud in a 65-strong coalition (in the 120-seat Knesset) ahead of Tuesday, May 28’s deadline for doing so. But the key obstacle to that outcome, the participation in the next government of Avigdor Liberman’s five-seat Yisrael Beytenu party, remained immovable as of Thursday night.

Liberman is insisting that legislation to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox males serving in the army be passed without any changes, and that it include specific numbers of annual recruits — a position the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have said they reject.

Netanyahu summoned his prospective coalition partners to an urgent meeting at his office in Jerusalem at 8 p.m., but Liberman stayed away and Likud issued a statement warning that his stubbornness could result in a left-wing government forming instead.

“Liberman committed to his voters that he will support establishing a right-wing government under Netanyahu,” the statement said. “At the moment he is using all kinds of excuses in order to prevent setting up that government, which may lead to the establishing of a left-wing government.”

On its Facebook page, Yisrael Beytenu wrote “the draft bill was a central topic on the Yisrael Beytenu agenda during the elections and after them. In the coalition negotiations we made it clear time after time that on this subject there will be no concessions.”

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman leads a party faction meeting at the Knesset on May 13, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Jerusalem’s Mayor Moshe Lion, who is close to Liberman, was meeting with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads United Torah Judaism, to try to resolve the crisis.

Following the meeting, Likud issued another statement saying that all the participants had agreed on the necessity to form a right-wing government as soon as possible under Netanyahu and called on Liberman “to stand by his promises to his voters and join the right-wing government without delay.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. center, speaks with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, in the Knesset, on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the leader of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, MK Rafi Peretz, notified Netanyahu that his party remains insistent that it be given the justice and education ministries in the next government, Channel 13 news reported. URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich vowed early Thursday that he would be justice minister, or his party would not join the coalition.

Netanyahu wants a Likud legislator helming the Justice Ministry, however, as he bids to avoid prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he is facing indictment, since he is widely reported to be seeking to advance legislation that would render him immune from prosecution.

Union of Right-Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz (R) and National Union faction chair Bezalel Smotrich at the party’s 2019 election campaign launch, March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 13 news reported late Thursday that an upbeat Smotrich told its reporters “there will be a coalition” — implying that the issue had been resolved to his satisfaction. There was no immediate confirmation of this.

Kulanu MK Roy Folkman. (Flash90)

Ironically, the four-member Kulanu party of Moshe Kahlon, which indicated last year that it take a tough line against Netanyahu attempting to avoid prosecution, and would oppose him staying in office if indicted, seems to be safely on board from Netanyahu’s point of view. Its faction chairman Roy Folkman said early Thursday that he supports a mooted “override clause” that would prevent the Supreme Court from blocking immunity for Netanyahu. Reduced from 10 seats in the last Knesset to four this time, Folkman said Kulanu no longer had the political clout to thwart the kind of “personal” legislation it had blocked in the four years of the last Knesset.

Earlier, sources told Hebrew-language media outlets that Liberman “blew up coalition talks” over legislation formalizing army draft exemptions for religious seminary students and other matters of religion and state. Liberman has clashed with ultra-Orthodox parties — also necessary for Netanyahu to form a coalition — over the issues and in particular the draft of seminary students, which they oppose.

Netanyahu had reportedly offered Liberman a return to his former position as defense minister. In addition to the Defense Ministry, Yisrael Beytenu would receive the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, a portfolio it also held in the last government, the Ynet website reported early Thursday. However, no agreement was reached.

With time running out before the May 28 deadline for Netanyahu to submit a coalition to the Knesset, no agreement has been signed with any party. Without reconciling the conflicting demands of Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the other factions likely to join, Netanyahu will be unable to assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

The idea of seeking Knesset approval for a 60-strong coalition would be a high-risk last resort, since it would require at least one other MK to at least abstain from that vote. Another alternative would be a resort to new general elections — an improbable prospect so soon after the April 9 elections, but one that Likud sources warned Thursday could yet become realistic.

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