In a day of political upheavals, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went from a stalemate in coalition talks with Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog to reaching a preliminary deal with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in just 16 hours.
In a meeting that lasted less than an hour Wednesday afternoon, Liberman accepted Netanyahu’s offer of the defense and immigration and absorption portfolios and support for key Yisrael Beytenu- sponsored legislation.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin negotiated for the Likud with Liberman and Jerusalem city councilman Moshe Lion late Wednesday in an effort to finalize the deal by Thursday, ahead of Monday’s return of the Knesset from its extended Passover recess.
Netanyahu updated Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon immediately after meeting with Liberman. While it was not final Wednesday night, a source close to Netanyahu said Ya’alon is likely to be compensated by becoming foreign minister, but Ya’alon’s office said he had not yet been offered the post.
There will be a series of appointments within the Likud as well, with Levin and outgoing Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin expected to receive promotions.
One Likud MK not expected to be promoted is Bennie Begin, who called Liberman’s appointment as defense minister “delusional and irresponsible.”
Talks with Yisrael Beytenu began after negotiations with the Zionist Union failed to progress.
Netanyahu met with Herzog until 1 a.m. late Tuesday night but failed to reach agreements on diplomatic issues.
In a Tel Aviv press conference, Herzog blamed the failure to reach a deal on Netanyahu refusing to write down his commitments on diplomatic issues.
But Likud officials said Herzog had not succeeded in drafting the support of any MKs in his 24-MK faction, while Liberman’s six MKs were loyal and obedient.
Liberman dared Netanyahu to engage in serious coalition talks to add Yisrael Beytenu to the government Wednesday morning in a press conference at the Knesset. Netanyahu immediately called and invited him to meet with him four hours later.
At the press conference Liberman denied a report that he met last week with Netanyahu and that the prime minister offered him defense. He said he had heard such offers only from the press and “self-appointed mediators” who did not represent Netanyahu.
“If it is true that we are being offered the defense portfolio, pension reforms and the death penalty bill, that is a respectful offer, it is serious, there is what to talk about,” Liberman said.
“But we won’t talk in the middle of the night. The offers must be official and on the table, without mediators and with full transparency. The prime minister has my phone number.”
Liberman appeared to backtrack on demands he made in a March 21 press conference on matters of religion and state following an appeal by Shas leader Arye Deri to join the coalition.
He listed 30 demands at the time, including drafting more yeshiva students and allowing the recognition of civil unions.
“We don’t intend to whitewash the entrance of the Zionist Union to the coalition,” Liberman said. “We know we can’t get 100% of our demands. We realize the haredim are part of the coalition. We were part of governments with the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] before.”
Liberman appeared to give another reason for his interest in joining the government, when he said his party would not support Joint List head Ayman Odeh becoming the head of the opposition. The key post and the regular security briefings that come with it could go to an Arab MK for the first time, if the Zionist Union enters the coalition, instead of Yisrael Beytenu.
Asked about his recent statement calling Netanyahu “a liar, cheater and crook,” he said: “With all due credit to personal issues, they aren’t relevant.”
Even though he knew it meant giving up his portfolio, Elkin immediately responded by calling upon Netanyahu to conduct expedited coalition talks with Yisrael Beytenu.
“It is better a stable government with the nationalist camp, as we promised the voters, than forming a fake unity government that will not be stable and will harm the Likud, the nationalist camp and the trust of the voters in the political system,” he said.
Levin said, “The great effort we have made for months to bring Liberman to truly consider entering the government and bringing six mandates back to the Right has succeeded, and I welcome it.”
He said there was never a justification for Yisrael Beytenu not to be in the government.
“This can be finished in a matter of hours, in order to establish a stable, nationalist government that will stand up for its principles in the name of the voters,” Levin said.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz also welcomed the entry of Yisrael Beytenu into the coalition, saying that the party is “a natural partner for a nationalist government led by the Likud.”
Construction Minister Uri Ariel said it’s important to expand the nationalist coalition and welcomed Liberman to the government, but said “the attacks on Defense Minister Ya’alon are unacceptable to me.” MK Moti Yogev, also of the Bayit Yehudi, echoed Ariel’s statement.
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) said that while he disagrees with Ya’alon on many topics, the defense minister was “a lighthouse in the dark” in the current government.
“While Ya’alon fought off endless attacks on worthy officers, the rebellious Elkin-Bennett- Regev-Liberman group cynically took advantage of the army to score political points time and again,” Bar-Lev stated.
“When [Netanyahu] is at the helm and Liberman is his contractor, it’s a nightmare situation.”
MK Dov Henin (Joint List) said that Netanyahu and Liberman are “united through extremism, racism, trampling political rivals, incitement, continuing the cycle of violence and the wars while selling our present and future to tycoons.”
Henin called for a “real, fighting opposition... that will not sell its values for a seat in the government.”Lahav Harkov, Julie Steigerwald, Daniel Clinton, and Ariel Zilber contributed to this report.