Yisrael Beytenu says PM illegally pushing Tiberias mayor as secularist rival

Yisrael Beytenu says PM illegally pushing Tiberias mayor as secularist rival

Avigdor Liberman-led party claims conspiracy, alleged quid pro quo, as Ron Cobi launches long-shot Knesset bid to compete for same voters; Likud denies claim

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Ron Cobi, mayor of Tiberias seen outside Tiberias municipality building in northern Israel, April 1, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Ron Cobi, mayor of Tiberias seen outside Tiberias municipality building in northern Israel, April 1, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beyenu party on Wednesday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of hatching an illegal scheme to encourage the mayor of Tiberias to run as a right-wing secular candidate in the upcoming September Knesset elections to siphon votes away from them.

The Likud party denied the allegations and said Ron Cobi was “operating independently.”

The brash mayor of the northern city, who worked to introduce public transportation on Shabbat in the city and incurred ultra-Orthodox loathing over his comments about curbing the Haredi population in the city, announced earlier this week he’ll run for the Knesset.

Though a long-shot candidate, his “Secular Right” party platform focuses on religion and state issues, with a nationalist bent, mirroring some of the positions of Yisrael Beytenu and sparking concerns among lawmakers in Liberman’s party.

Cobi, who was elected mayor in October, unveiled his bid to run for parliament days before he was roundly defeated in a budgetary vote on Tuesday night for the third time, paving the way for the Interior Ministry to remove him from city office.

Nine out of 15 city council members voted against Cobi’s proposed budget late Tuesday, effectively firing themselves from office by June 30, when the Interior Ministry will begin to intervene and decide whether to oust Cobi.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer seen during a faction meeting in the Knesset, on December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“It seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so hysterical to the extent that there is a concern he is even willing to violate the law and run a straw man candidate like Cobi,” Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer said in a statement on Wednesday.

He demanded that Netanyahu clarify whether he met Cobi and discussed the prospect of his running to harm Yisrael Beytenu, and suggested the prime minister promised the embattled Tiberias mayor help with securing political donations or a future political appointment as a quid pro quo. “Did you ask him to ‘steal’ Yisrael Beytenu’s slogan from the previous elections ‘secular right’ as the name of his party list?” asked Forer.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ron Cobi know he has no chance of being elected into the Knesset. The more meaningful question is whether the prime minister promised him, in exchange for his candidacy, a position after the election?” continued Forer. “Or perhaps he promised him that he will apply pressure on Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to prevent him from exercising his authority and thwarting the firing of Cobi as mayor?”

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near a billboard with pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas head Aryeh Deri, as part of the Shas election campaign, in Safed, March 10, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Liberman on Tuesday was quoted as telling Russian-language media that Cobi was a “clown who didn’t manage to form a city coalition, didn’t manage to pass a budget, and is now running for Knesset. This is a party of clowns whose entire purpose is to take votes from Yisrael Beytenu.”

A spokesperson for Netanyahu denied the allegations, saying “the Likud and the prime minister do not stand behind the decisions of Ron Cobi, who is operating independently.”

Yisrael Beytenu and Likud have been at loggerheads over religion issues and the ultra-Orthodox since last month, when lawmakers voted to disband the Knesset and go to an unprecedented second national election in a year after Liberman declined to enter Netanyahu’s coalition over disagreements on Haredi enlistment into the military.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman participates in a Saturday Culture event in Tel Aviv, on March 2, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Liberman copied everything he’s doing now from what we’ve done during this past six months,” claimed Cobi this month. “The war against Haredi coercion began in Tiberias.”

Dubbed the “Donald Trump of the north” by Israeli media over his combative style, Cobi swept into local office in the fall on a campaign that focused on the growing ultra-Orthodox community and its influence in the city, highlighted in a series of frequently foul-mouthed and menacing Facebook live videos. He quickly went on to become the bête noire of the Haredi community after launching free bus lines on Saturdays in the city and expanding the entertainment and commerce permitted to open on the Jewish day of rest, while pledging to restrict housing projects for ultra-Orthodox residents. In March, Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich accused Cobi of “anti-Semitism.”

Since launching his political campaign, Cobi has also repeatedly taken aim at the Haredi Interior Minister Deri, who holds the key to his political future in the northern city and is a key coalition ally of Netanyahu.

“Whoever voted against the budget [on the city council] are the puppets on strings that he [Deri] controls,” he told Army Radio on Wednesday, following his defeat. “He must be removed from the circle of influence.”

“When you see these scumbags in the Knesset and the revolting rabbis who are getting involved in the city, you understand that they must be defeated elsewhere,” he told Channel 12 on Monday. “There’s nothing to do, this country has been taken over by the Interior Ministry, which is controlling the lives of the citizens in the whole country, in the periphery and the center.”

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