“The argument right now revolves around the question as to who should serve as prime minister first and who second. I hope President [Reuven] Rivlin succeeds in bridging both sides, and that a decision will be made on the matter,” said Yisrael Beiteinu Party leader Avigdor Lieberman.
By Dov Lipman, JNS
Following his completion of meeting with party representatives, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party head Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, in an attempt to discuss the coalition-building process and to break the political deadlock.
The move comes as it became clear from the meetings that neither Netanyahu’s Likud Party nor Gantz has enough support to form a 61-seat governing coalition, with Netanyahu’s coalition at 55 and Gantz’s at 54.
As such, it seems that Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu Party has eight seats, holds the key to crowning either Gantz or Netanyahu as prime minister. But his party didn’t recommend anyone to form a government, leaving the decision regarding who should try to form a government up to the president, with no one having a clear—or perhaps even viable—path to reaching 61.
Lieberman, who holds right-wing views and has been supportive of Netanyahu for decades, told JNS that “the moment Netanyahu and Likud chose to close a deal with the ultra-Orthodox and messianic parties, we could not recommend Netanyahu for prime minister.”
If that’s the case, then why won’t he and his party support Gantz?
Lieberman explained to JNS that “the moment Benny Gantz chose to seek the support of the Joint Arab List, we could not recommend Gantz for prime minister.”
Gantz now has the support of the Joint Arab List, which, for the first time since 1992, recommended someone for prime minister. It shook up Israel’s political world when its leaders told Rivlin that they want Gantz to be prime minister, giving Gantz the seats needed to surpass Netanyahu’s 55-seat bloc.
The Arab leadership explained it was doing so not because they truly support Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who some in the Joint Arab List blame for his role in the 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” against Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Faction chair Knesset member Ahmed Tibi made it clear that his party has no plans to actually join a Gantz-led government. Rather, he stated, they took this step of simply recommending Gantz to the president to try to prevent Netanyahu from being premier again.
Lieberman explained to JNS that the Arab parties are “enemies of the state,” and “wherever they will be, we will be on the other side.”
He pointed to the fact that Knesset member Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List, did not attend the funeral of former President Shimon Peres on Sept. 30, 2016. Yet he did go visit the grave of former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat that week, as proof that Knesset members from the Joint Arab List do not support Israel.
Lieberman was not the only one critical of the Joint Arab List breaking from tradition and recommending someone for prime minister. Israeli Minister of Tourism and Aliyah Yariv Levin, who led the Likud delegation to the meeting with the president and is in charge of coalition negotiations for Netanyahu, told JNS that “Likud is not against the Arab population and would be fine with Arab ministers serving in its government. But we are against those, like the Joint Arab List, who do not accept the basis of an Israeli government—that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.”
Levin said as long as the Arab parties support terrorism and take orders from the Palestinian Authority, Likud cannot consider sitting with them.
According to reports, there are two obstacles preventing Blue and White from partnering with Likud for a national unity government. First, they refuse to sit with Netanyahu because of his impending indictment on corruption charges and insist on someone else leading Likud before they consider a joint government. Secondly, they have demands regarding religion and state issues the ultra-Orthodox parties outright reject.
Levin told JNS that both of these demands prevent the formation of a unity government.
“Netanyahu is our party’s leader and candidate for prime minister, and anyone who has a dream of breaking apart the Likud can forget about it,” he said.
Regarding the issue Blue and White has with ultra-Orthodox parties, Levin told JNS that “we will not sit in a government that does not include our partners from the ultra-Orthodox parties. It’s all 55 of us in our bloc or nothing.”
And so, Lieberman is insisting that both sides come together to form a unity government.
He told JNS that “there is only one option, and that is a Zionistic, liberal national unity government led by the Blue and White Party and the Likud Party,” with Gantz and Netanyahu rotating as prime minister.
He said his party would happily join that coalition. “Gantz and Netanyahu should get over their silly argument over who should be prime minister first and just flip a coin to decide that,” said Lieberman.
Following his meeting with Gantz on Monday, Lieberman reiterated this stance, posting on Facebook that he was pleased both parties “internalized” the need for a unity government, and that the only question remaining is who will lead first.
“The entire argument right now revolves around the question as to who should serve as prime minister first and who second,” he said. “I hope that President Rivlin succeeds in bridging both sides, and that a decision will be made on the matter.”