(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman dropped a political bombshell Monday, announcing at the Knesset that not only would he not join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but that he also would quit his post immediately.
Speaking at a meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu faction later, Liberman painted the move as purely ideological and principled.
He said he had relayed his demands to the Likud on ideological issues and did not like the answer he received.
“It is no secret that over the last few days we debated how to proceed,” he said. “The dilemma was between principles and cabinet seats. I am happy to say we conceded on the seats. We could have gotten an enhanced Foreign Ministry and Immigration and Absorption portfolio.
But we reached the clear conclusion that it wasn’t right to enter the current coalition.
Everything we saw in the agreements with the other parties and everything we didn’t see persuaded me it wouldn’t be a nationalist government but a government of opportunism and conformism.”
Liberman accused Netanyahu of secretly planning to expel Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi from the coalition after the next Labor leadership race and build a national unity government with the Zionist Union.
The Likud reacted with fury to Liberman’s decision, accusing him of conspiring to bring Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to power and saying that Liberman was the last man who could scold about opportunism.
“He is a cynical politician, the ultimate opportunist, who planned to topple the prime minister and intended to be the Left’s compromise candidate for prime minister after the election,” a Likud source close to Netanyahu said. “He is completely violating the promise he made to his voters to support the formation of a nationalist government.”
Without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu has no choice but to form a narrow coalition with a razor-thin majority of 61 MKs out of 120. Likud sources said he may keep the Foreign Ministry for himself, though six Likud MKs have declared themselves candidates for the plum post.
“Sixty-one is a good number, but 61-plus is even better,” Netanyahu said.
Following Liberman’s announcement, the Likud expedited coalition talks with Shas and Bayit Yehudi in an effort to complete the process of building the government by the 8 p.m.
Shas and the Likud signed a coalition agreement Monday night bringing the ultra-Orthodox party into the new government and making Shas chairman Arye Deri minister of the Economy and Development of the Negev and Galilee ministries. He may also be religious services minister or he could give the post to another Shas MK.
In addition, the party will receive a deputy minister in a ministry yet to be determined, and another deputy minister in the Finance Ministry who will be in charge of the Planning Administration body that was moved from the Interior Ministry to the Finance Ministry in accordance with the demands of Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon. Shas also will receive chairmanship of the Knesset Education Committee and a deputy Knesset speaker post.
At the signing ceremony, Deri expressed satisfaction with Shas’s accomplishments in the coalition agreement but also concern that the nascent coalition likely will include no more than a tiny majority. Referring to Herzog as “my friend Buji,” he called upon the Zionist Union to join the government.
“I promised and I have fulfilled those promises,” Deri declared after signing the agreement.
“There will be zero percent tax on basic goods, reforms to public housing and a higher minimum wage.”
The Likud ended speculation that Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett could be given the Foreign Affairs portfolio Liberman vacated, which he reportedly demanded. The party issued an ultimatum to Bayit Yehudi to accept the deal it was offered or prevent a right-wing government from being formed and catapult Herzog to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The deal would give Bayit Yehudi the Education, Agriculture and Culture and Sport portfolios, as well as a deputy defense minister in charge of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria and the chairmanship of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee.
“If Bayit Yehudi rejects the offer, the result will be a left-wing government under Herzog that will evacuate settlements, concede on Jerusalem, give into international pressure and harm religious Zionists,” the Likud said.
“Bennett should sign a deal already tonight and keep his promises to his right-wing voters by immediately joining a nationalist government.”
Bayit Yehudi convened an emergency faction meeting at 11 p.m. Monday to decide how to react to the Likud ultimatum. Sources close to Bennett said it was likely the party would issue a counter offer to the Likud.
The Zionist Union and Meretz called upon Kulanu not to join the government and to bring Herzog to power instead. Kahlon responded that, after speaking to Netanyahu, he is confident the coalition of 61 MKs eventually would be expanded.
Besides adding the Zionist Union, possibilities include trying to split the Yisrael Beytenu or Yesh Atid factions.