Netanyahu, right, and Lieberman at a Likud-Beiteinu faction meeting on March 14.
Netanyahu, right, and Lieberman at a Likud-Beiteinu faction meeting on March 14, 2013. Photo by Emil Salman
Text size

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced on Monday that he is ending his partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and dismantling the Likud-Beiteinu faction.

In a press conference, Lieberman suggested that Netanyahu is not handling the recent outbreak in violence suitably and said that the law must be enforced on Israeli Arabs.

"Disagreements between the prime minister and me are fundamental and do not allow for a future partnership," Lieberman said. "The partnership did not work during the elections, it did not work after the elections and to this day there were quite a few technical issues. When technical issues turn to fundamental ones there is no point in continuing."

"I am not attacking the prime minister – he has the right to his views. I see matters differently and I don't hide it," Lieberman said.

Lieberman explained that the end of the partnership does not mean the collapse of the coalition and that his party will remain in the government and its ministers will maintain their portfolios.

A Likud source told Haaretz that "the maneuver is not something to get excited over. Lieberman needs to rehabilitate his crashing poll numbers, and he has to distance himself from Netanyahu to regain his popularity."

Lieberman and Netanyahu exchanged verbal blows over the past few days over how Israel should respond to the rocket fire from Gaza.

In his televised statement at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu jabbed at Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who have been calling for a large-scale operaion in Gaza and criticizing the government's policies. "In these moments we must be level-headed and responsible," Netanyahu said, not use "inflammatory and brash" rhetoric. "We will do everything possible to restore calm in the south," he said.

When the photographers left the room, Netanyahu turned to the ministers and pressed on with his criticism of Lieberman and Bennett. He called on ministers not to fan the flames, saying that "those who criticize me and the government over our conduct is irresponsible and doing so for political ends."

Lieberman was quick to respond to Netanyahu: "You were the one who held a press conference after the kidnapped [teens'] funeral and before the cabinet and only spouted slogans without backing them up."

"What I said about Gaza and Israeli Arabs," Lieberman added, "are things I have been telling my constituents for years. You promised to deal a harsh blow on Hamas but nothing came of it and they continue to shoot at citizens."

Netanyahu reacted angrily. "You should first come to cabinet meetings, and only then talk in the media about policies," he told Lieberman. The foreign minister, however, brushed off his remark.

"Don't put me on a scorecard," he said. "I was in Germany on a political visit and I immediately returned when I heard that the bodies of the kidnapped teens had been found, so I missed one cabinet meeting." The second cabinet meeting, Lieberman told Netanyahu, was hastily scheduled and held while he was meeting with Albania's parliament speaker. "I, at least, cannot be accused of leaking information from cabinet meeting." 

Liberman's latest step is the last link in a chain which led to the foretold rift between the factions: Lieberman's wish for a joint campaign in the next election together with Habayit Hayehudi party ran into a brick wall both in the Likud and in his own party. Likud officials were livid at the portfolios given to Yisrael Beiteinu, which left it in control of a row of major ministries and effectively made Lieberman Netanyahu's second in command.

The two parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, never fully unified: They have separate bodies and different agendas. Their unity, now dismantled, was mostly expressed in the joint faction meetings every Monday and in the coordination between Lieberman and Netanyahu. According to estimations in the Likud, this coordination will continue even as Lieberman goes his separate way.

The main casualties of Lieberman's announcement are the prime minister and the Likud faction: The ruling party is set to shrink from 31 shared Knesset seats to only 20, meaning Netanyahu's party will only have one mandate over the second largest Knesset party, Yesh Atid, with 19 MKs.