In a dramatic announcement Wednesday just hours before Blue and White chief Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a government ends, Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman announced that he would not support either a minority government headed by Gantz or a right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He also castigated the ultra-Orthodox parties as “increasingly anti-Zionist,” linking them in this regard with the largely Arab Joint List, which he again called a “fifth column.” And he implied that a prominent ultra-Orthodox sage was engaged in money laundering.
“There is no chance. We will not join either a limited right- or left-wing government or a minority government. Whatever sort of government that would be, it would not survive and would not be able to function to do what is needed for the country,” Liberman told the packed Yisrael Beytenu faction room in the Knesset, apparently setting Israel up for third elections in under a year.
Should Gantz fail to form a coalition by Wednesday at midnight, Knesset members have a further 21 days to choose another MK to be given the mandate to form a government, or decide to head back to elections.
“I have left no stone unturned in order to get to a liberal national unity government as we promised in the election. We made every of effort both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. I received innumerable offers including everything from a rotation as prime minister for a year — half the kingdom plus 10 percent. But we will not sell our values for seats, even if it’s the best upholstered chair there is,” Liberman declared.
The Yisrael Beteynu chief added, “Liberal unity was very close. The only thing we had to overcome was a personal rift — one [side] wasn’t willing to accept the president’s plan, the other wouldn’t give up on his messianic, ultra-Orthodox bloc.”
President Reuven Rivlin has suggested a power-sharing agreement whereby, he indicated, Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if he is indicted in the three corruption cases pending against him.
“Who is to blame?” Liberman continued. “Both [Gantz and Netanyahu]. Neither was willing to make dramatic decisions. Both played a double game. So in my opinion, both are to blame.”
Netanyahu and Gantz traded accusations late Tuesday night in statements issued shortly after the conclusion of a one-hour meeting they had at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in which efforts for a unity government appeared to break down.
In a statement, the premier misrepresented an ultimatum Liberman issued earlier this month, in which he challenged Netanyahu and Gantz to accept tough compromises or he would back the candidate that would, and renege on his pledge to only support a national unity government.
“Unfortunately, last night in our meeting Benny Gantz refused to accept the condition posed by Avigdor Liberman — accepting the president’s proposal according to which I, as the sitting prime minister, will go first in the rotation for the premiership,” Netanyahu said in his statement, ignoring the proposal’s call for him to take a leave of absence if he is indicted.
“Liberman said he would go with the side that doesn’t refuse,” Netanyahu added. “Now all that is left is to see whether Avigdor Liberman is a man of his word.”
Liberman’s ultimatum, in addition to demanding that Gantz “accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence,” called on Netanyahu to “say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc.” That was a reference to his 55-MK bloc of right-wing and religious lawmakers, who have been supporting him and conducting coalition negotiations as a group — in what has turned out to be a major obstacle to a unity government.
Netanyahu has reportedly been seeking immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases facing him via that bloc.
Though Gantz has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, with Liberman’s support he could have theoretically formed a minority government with the external backing of the predominantly Arab Joint List.
However, the odds of the staunchly right-wing Liberman — who has referred to Arab MKs as traitors and has suggested transferring Arab Israeli cities to the control of a future Palestinian state — providing support for such an option always appeared slim.
On Wednesday, Liberman said he had made it appear that he was considering supporting a government backed up by the Joint List “in order to put some form of pressure on Netanyahu. That didn’t work.”
Instead, the Yisrael Beytenu leader said a unity government was needed specifically to “neutralize the threat of the anti-Zionist cooperation in the Knesset between the Arab parties and the Haredim.
“We should say it as it is — the Joint List is really a fifth column. But unfortunately the Haredi parties are also becoming more and more anti-Zionist,” he charged. “It’s not just at the margins,” he said. Noting the arrival in Israel on Tuesday of the Satmar Rebbe, he said the sage “gave out millions of dollars” in an act of apparent “money laundering” that should be investigated by the tax authorities.
“Netanyahu is enslaving the entire Likud movement to the ultra-Orthodox,” he added.
Netanyahu and Gantz have traded barbs in recent days over the prospect of a Joint List-backed minority government, which the Blue and White leader has neither endorsed nor ruled out. On Sunday evening, Netanyahu’s Likud party organized an “emergency rally” that was aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.”
There, the premier accused members of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country.” He claimed, without proof, that the Arab MKs support the Gaza terror organizations that Israel fought against last week.
President Rivlin rebuked Netanyahu for those comments.
Likud alleged in a statement Wednesday morning that “Gantz told Prime Minister Netanyahu during their meeting that he intends to form a minority government propped up by the terror supporters. Gantz and Lapid brazenly lied to their voters when they said ‘we will not hold negotiations with the Arab parties.'”
There seemed to have been no indication from Blue and White before the elections that it wouldn’t hold talks with the Joint List.
Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.