Netanyahu Says Will Ask Lieberman's Party to Join Government

Lieberman flatly rejects offer as 'spin' to coax Zionist Union into Netanyahu government, after PM says chances of unity government with center-left part are low.

Avigdor Lieberman.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he plans to ask the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party to join the governing coalition, a move that would expand his parliamentary majority to eight seats from two, but which the right wing party rejected as a "spin."

Netanyahu, speaking at a meeting of Knesset leaders of the coalition parties, said he was optimistic about Yisrael Beiteinu joining and said the chance of center-left Zionist Union joining was low at least for the time being.

“I intend to publicly call on Lieberman to join the government,” he said, referring to Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman. He said that in return he would try to improve the pension situation of Russian-speaking immigrants.

But officials in Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu have expressed suspicions about Likud’s attempts to coax the right-wing party into the coalition, saying the real intention was to pressure opposition leader Isaac Herzog into bringing his Zionist Union in.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman at a cabinet meeting, April 2013.
Emil Salman

Lieberman flatly rejected the overture, calling it unserious: "All of Netanyahu's spins will not change one simple fact: Netanyahu, in complete contradiction to his election promises, is negotiating with a party that less than a year ago he said were not Zionist, threatening that it was 'them or him.' It is no surprise that Netanyhu's government is not a right wing government: It does not fight terror, but rather contains it, telling Israelis that its fate; it does not build in Jerusalem or in the [West Bank] settlement blocs  in Judea and Samaria, it hands over the bodies of terrorist. Don't let the spins fools you: Bibi wants [Herzog] and the rest is just BS."

Netanyahu had told cabinet members from his party last week that Lieberman “doesn’t want” to join him, while Herzog “wasn’t able to.”

“The likelihood of bringing Lieberman into the government isn’t high; his demands are impossible,” said a Likud official involved in efforts to expand the coalition. “If he genuinely wanted to join a right-wing government he would have done so long ago.”

The efforts to bring in Yisrael Beiteinu aren’t new; Lieberman said in March that Interior Minister Arye Dery had asked him to join.

“Basically, we never stopped trying to bring Herzog and Lieberman into the coalition, from the day Netanyahu presented his new government to the Knesset” a year ago, said a source close to Netanyahu.

“In the first months we tried to interest Yair Lapid as well, but we realized we didn’t stand a chance with him,” the source added, referring to the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party.

To entice Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu would have to accept a long list of demands from Lieberman that would lead to a clash with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. It would also mean stiffening Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, reigniting disagreements with the international community.

Lieberman has not kept the negotiations secret, and his asking price is considered large, including the defense portfolio and a return to the policy of assassinating Hamas leaders and striving to bring down the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

His demands also include progress on his campaign promise to ease restrictions on the death penalty for convicted terrorists.

Demands by Lieberman that would put him on a collision course with the ultra-Orthodox parties include passage of the civil union bill, which would in effect enable civil marriage, but only for heterosexual couples.

Lieberman also wants the restoration of the so-called Tzohar Law, which made it easier for Israelis, particularly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, to marry despite not being considered Jewish according to Orthodox Judaism.

He also wants to roll back changes to military conscription introduced after pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties during the formation of the current government.

Likud officials have said they believe Lieberman prefers to remain in the opposition.

A year ago, Lieberman failed to stanch the outflow of votes to Habayit Hayehudi, Likud and Eli Yishai’s Yachad Ha'am Itanu party. But in the opposition, outflanking Netanyahu on the right, he represents an alternative to the government, and in recent polls he has doubled his popularity.