Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to establish a right-wing government following his fifth election victory, an Israeli TV report claimed Friday there was “a readiness” by his Likud party, the defeated rival Blue and White party and Avigdor Liberman’s small Yisrael Beytenu to instead consider a more moderate “unity government.”
“There is a three-sided readiness” for “a real unity government,” Channel 12 TV’s political analyst Amnon Abramovich claimed, setting out what he said were terms that Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid has prepared for discussion with Liberman as the first stage of negotiation over the idea. Lapid and Liberman both flew to Vienna in the aftermath of the elections, sparking speculation that they would be meeting there, but this was denied by a Yisrael Beytenu MK on Thursday.
Lapid himself responded to the TV report by saying he is “personally opposed to sitting in a government with Netanyahu.”
In his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Netanyahu, whose Likud won 36 seats in the Tuesday elections, specified that while he would aim to serve as the prime minister of all Israelis, “right and left, Jewish and non-Jewish,” he would put together a right-wing government. Knesset arithmetic indicates that he can do so — his 36-strong Likud, plus the 15 MKs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, plus five from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, four from Kulanu and five from Yisrael Beytenu would give him 65 seats in the 120-member parliament.
However, Liberman has not publicly committed to joining such a government. His secular agenda — which includes compelling more ultra-Orthodox males to do IDF service, introducing civil marriage and allowing more public transportation on the Sabbath — is completely contrary to the demands the ultra-Orthodox parties will make. Netanyahu would have a 60-strong coalition without him, which would be an awkward but not impossible way to govern, since Liberman, even in opposition, would not vote with the Arab parties to bring down a right-wing government.
According to the TV report, Lapid’s proposal is that Likud, the 35-seat Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu, form a unity government, which would have an overwhelming 80 Knesset seats. This coalition would exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties and the right-wing URWP, would advance widely popular legislation, including Liberman’s secular agenda, and take a less hawkish stance on the imminent Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal from US President Donald Trump. It would also be able to maintain better relations with non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews than a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition.
The unsourced TV report seems highly improbable, although the very idea that Netanyahu might contemplate a unity government could help him negotiate a right-wing coalition from a stronger position if the ultra-Orthodox parties and URWP believe there is even a remote prospect that he might opt for the unity course.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz specified repeatedly before the elections that his party would not sit in government with Netanyahu. The TV report claimed Lapid’s proposal instead accepts the idea of partnering with Netanyahu even if he is indicted in the three corruption cases where he faces charges pending a hearing.
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, who also said before the elections that Netanyahu could not stay on as prime minister if indicted, is reported to be negotiating a merger of Kulanu with Likud, and to now accept the idea of Netanyahu staying on even if charged — as the prime minister would be allowed to do under existing law.
Reports in recent days have indicated that Liberman is seeking the job of defense minister in the new coalition — a post he held until quitting last November in protest at what he said was Netanyahu’s unduly soft policy on confronting Hamas in Gaza. Channel 12 on Friday said Liberman is demanding, as his price for joining the coalition, both to be defense minister and to see the IDF Draft bill he has been pushing passed without further amendment.
Next week, President Reuven Rivlin will begin the formal process that will lead to him asking Netanyahu to form the next government. Rivlin may well issue a call for unity, but the election results are so decisively in Netanyahu’s favor that the president cannot do more than issue a general plea to that effect.