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Lieberman rejects narrow coalition with Netanyahu and stands firm on secular agenda

What happened: The Israeli newspaper Maariv has published an explosive interview with Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Speaking to Ben Caspit, he severely criticised Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected a narrow right-wing coalition and insisted he will not compromise on his liberal secular agenda of reforms to religion and state laws.

  • Lieberman said he will demand wide ranging reforms on religion and state issues, including passing his version of the ultra-Orthodox military conscription law, allowing public transport to operate and convenience stores to open on the Sabbath, easing the Jewish conversion process and insisting on core secular education in ultra-Orthodox schools.
  • Lieberman said Prime Minister Netanyahu is: “Incapable of understanding concepts such as friendship and loyalty.” He added: “Bibi’s problem is that as soon as you have an approach or attitude that is different to his, and it contradicts his interests, you immediately become a personal enemy … you’re immediately accused of hating the prime minister, of being a leftist, of trying to bring him down.”
  • Lieberman said that were Netanyahu to offer him the post of Prime Minister in a rotation arrangement, he would tell him “to go to hell”.

Context: Lieberman and Netanyahu have a long and complex 20-year relationship, most of the time as close political allies but this ended in December 2018 when Lieberman resigned as defence minister and refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition after the 9 April election.

  • Last week the two men met for the first time in months, but Netanyahu failed to convince him to join a right-wing religious coalition. If Lieberman had joined Netanyahu, with his party’s 8 seats, he would have given Netanyahu a comfortable 63-seat majority.
  • Netanyahu can only currently build a coalition of 55 seats in the Knesset, six short of the required 61-seat majority. There is no deal in sight with either Yisrael Beitenu or the Blue and White party, so it is expected that Netanyahu will shortly inform the President that he has failed to form a government.
  • The Attorney General held the four and final day of Netanyahu’s pre-trial hearing yesterday and confirmed that there would be no supplementary investigations. Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. The Attorney General is expected to announce his final decision whether or not to indict Netanyahu by mid-December.

Looking ahead: 

  • On Thursday the Likud Central Committee will convene at Netanyahu’s request and confirm that he is their only candidate for Prime Minister for the 22nd Knesset. The move will shore up the rest of the right-wing parties in an attempt prevent any possible coup within Likud. After this manoeuvre is complete Netanyahu is expected to return the “mandate” to the President.
  • Benny Gantz will then be asked by the President to form a Government but he has very limited options unless he forms a grand coalition with the Likud, which he has said he won’t do as long as Netanyahu is Likud leader and facing indictments.
  • If he also fails, the final chance to form a government falls on any member of the Knesset who has the most likely chance of forming a 61-seat coalition. Due to Netanyahu’s manoeuvring both within the Likud and his right-wing bloc this is highly unlikely. The resulting deadlock could then precipitate another election.
  • Avigdor Lieberman said he would present his own plan for a national unity government if no progress is made by Thursday.