Netanyahu Prepares for New Election Amid Deadlock With Lieberman

The prime minister says he will convene all party heads in 'last-ditch effort' to stave off new election. Likud says the ultra-Orthodox have accepted the prime minister's proposal and that the ball is in Lieberman's court

Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, May 5, 2019
Abir Sultan,AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has decided not to enter a government headed by him no matter what, and that he is trying to rile the ultra-Orthodox parties to the point that they won't compromise on the contentious military draft bill in order to force a new election.

"I don't think we need to drag the country through an additional election, but it seems that there is someone who wants that," Netanyahu said at the start of cabinet meeting on Sunday morning.

Later Sunday, Likud said that the governing council of ultra-Orthodox rabbis has accepted the prime minister's proposal on the draft bill and that the ball is in Lieberman's court. Earlier, at a meeting with Likud ministers, Netanyahu said that the ultra-Orthodox parties have made "90 percent" progress towards Lieberman's position on the draft bill.

>> Read more: Lieberman threatens to kill negotiation talks, send Israel to new election ■ Israel's ex-defense minister could now topple Netanyahu | Analysis 

He added, however, that "if a solution is not found, this Wednesday we will present a bill to dissolve the Knesset in three readings." Netanyahu also said that if early elections are held, Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu would join forces with Likud.

Deputy Health Minister and Agudat Yisrael representative Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni in the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 8, 2015
Olivier Fitoussi

The opposition: A ploy by Netanyahu 

The opposition, meanwhile, believes that the prime minister's intentions to dissolve the Knesset if he can't form a coalition are a ploy to pressure Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties to concede and come to an agreement.

Sources in Kahol Lavan, Labor, and Meretz said Sunday that if the suggestion is raised, they would prefer to establish an alternative government - where President Reuven Rivlin gives a different party leader the mandate to form a government - rather than dissolve the Knesset. 

"There are enough MKs in the coalition that would be hurt by going to elections again, and in the moment of truth, will do anything to prevent this process, even if we're not hearing them now," a Kahol Lavan source said. Another source within the party said that they would not support dissolving the Knesset at this stage. 

Hadash Chairman Ahmad Tibi, on the other hand, took to Twitter Sunday to support dissolving the Knesset, even if the suggestion is just a tactic. "Since the 21st Knesset elections, you [MKs] have caused and will cause extensive damage, and therefore we must dissolve today before tomorrow. I support dissolving." 

Netanyahu has until midnight on Wednesday to form a government and will try to apply public pressure on the former defense minister, whom he claims is "leading for the establishment of a left-wing government," in an attempt to reach a compromise.

If this fails, Netanyahu will try to get several parties to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Israel head for a new election, in an attempt to prevent the establishment of a government that will not be led by him.

Lieberman remains steadfast

Lieberman responded on Sunday to the Likud's accusations that he sabotaged the negotiations for political reasons, saying there's "no need to search for hidden motives," insisting it all has to do with the Haredi draft bill.

Writing on his Facebook page, Lieberman asked Netanyahu's Likud party to "stop lying to the nation of Israel that Yisrael Beiteinu is searching for reasons not to sit in the government. We committed to passing the [ultra-Orthodox] conscription law… and look how it all turned out. Try us."

On Saturday, Lieberman reiterated that if his demand to promote the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill won't be met, he would prefer to see Israel headed for a new election.

Likud views such statements as an attempt to turn the discussion over the potential law into a war over religion. Likud officials believe that the ultra-Orthodox might have been willing to compromise, but are too enraged by Lieberman's statements for them to back down at this point.

A Likud spokesman said Netanyahu is working on a solution that would allow forming a right-wing government alongside the draft bill. According to the spokesman, the party has also begun preparing for new elections "if Lieberman continues to insist on bringing down the government," but added no decision has been made yet to dissolve the Knesset.

Lieberman denies the idea that he is attempting to stop Netanyahu from establishing a right-wing government. On Facebook, the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman wrote: "During the election campaign and after the election we said in a clear and public manner that we would only support Netanyahu as the candidate to form the government, and this was our recommendation to the president. We rejected every offer we got from different entities to tread other paths. Today, too, we say loud and clear that we won't recommend anyone else for prime minister." 

Despite expressing his support for Netanyahu, Lieberman added that his demand to push the draft law isn't new, so he doesn't understand why "the Likud chooses to slander Yisrael Beiteinu" instead of pressuring the religious parties and chiefly the main opponent to the bill, United Torah Judaism's Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. If the latter doesn't fold, Lieberman wrote, "we will go to an election again, and the people will determine whether they want a right-wing government or a ultra-Orthodox  government."

On Friday, ultra-Orthodox leaders Litzman and Moshe Gafni slammed Lieberman, saying that "any sentient being can see Lieberman doesn’t want to be part of Netanyahu's government, which is why he quit the government months ago and is now using the draft law as an excuse. In reality, he's the one who is blocking the formation of a right-wing government."

"We never asked for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law," ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism explained. "How does Lieberman expect to form a right-wing government without the ultra-Orthodox? With Meretz and Kahol Lavan? This makes no sense. He seems to want to make Netanyahu fail and form a left-wing government."