Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday expressed his opposition to a unity government with the centrist Blue and White party, rejecting a push for such a coalition by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
Liberman has vowed to bring about a unity government consisting of his party, Likud and Blue and White that does not include ultra-Orthodox factions if no one can form a coalition after the elections without Yisrael Beytenu.
A month and a half before the September 17 election, speculation is rife that a unity government could be the only viable result of the race. In most major polls, Netanyahu’s Likud does not appear to have a Knesset majority with just religious right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties after the dramatic falling out in May between the prime minister and Liberman.
Similarly, Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, looks to be unable to cobble together a coalition with parties to its left, and, without Likud, would need to build a government leaning on mutually antagonistic secularists and Haredi factions — a similarly unlikely prospect.
On Wednesday, the premier reacted to Liberman’s push with a statement — run by the staunchly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom paper as a column and featured as its main headline — saying that “my commitment is clear: There will be no unity government.”
The rest of the statement did not refer to the issue of a unity government and did not offer an explanation or elaboration on his position. It featured Netanyahu’s campaign messages pledging to form a right-wing government, calling on the public to vote for his party and attacking Gantz, Lapid and Liberman as leftists. The premier is campaigning to pick off supporters from the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Once a political ally, Liberman refused to join a Netanyahu-led government after the elections in April unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners.
That impasse helped trigger the fresh vote as, without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu was one seat short of a ruling majority.
Likud has previously dismissed the idea of a unity government, declaring it will seek a coalition with right-wing and religious parties — minus Yisrael Beytenu — while Blue and White has voiced support for a coalition with Likud, but only if it does not include Netanyahu, who is facing pending corruption charges.
Liberman recently said that if Netanyahu rejected his efforts to form a unity government, he would turn to a different Likud lawmaker after the elections, outlining a scenario in which Netanyahu could be ousted as head of the ruling party. Lapid, Blue and White’s number 2, then said his party was indeed in talks with Likud members about a possible successor to Netanyahu.
Lapid repeated that message Wednesday in reaction to Netanyahu’s statement, writing on Twitter: “Netanyahu might be against unity, but his top MKs are completely for it. They speak to us every day. If he loses to us by even a single seat, the mutiny within Likud will begin.”
Likud said Sunday that its top 40 candidates for the upcoming elections had signed a pledge offering their unequivocal support for Netanyahu and stating they have no intention of replacing him after the elections.
“We, the undersigned, candidates for Likud for the 22nd Knesset, emphasize that we will not be dictated to by any other party. Regardless of the election results, prime minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister — and there will be no other candidate,” stated the pledge, which was pushed by Likud MK David Bitan.
However, a television report Sunday evening suggested that, despite the pledge, senior members of the party were privately saying that if Netanyahu failed again to cobble together a coalition after the September elections, they may reconsider their stance.
A senior Likud source was quoted by Channel 12 as downplaying the significance of the loyalty pledge, saying that should the coalition talks again become deadlocked, as they were after the April elections, Likud members would be forced to “make difficult decisions.”
Alexander Fulbright and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.