Netanyahu Suspects Two Senior Ministers Conspire Against Him

In coalition talks, ex-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman refuses to concede on bill that would draft the ultra-Orthodox while Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon will not join coalition until Lieberman does

Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, May 13, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspects that two party leaders central to his effort to build a ruling coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, are conspiring to prevent him from forming a government.

Lieberman is refusing to budge on his demands in his negotiations with the prime minister, and on Wednesday, the Walla news website reported that Kahlon said he would not sign a coalition agreement before Lieberman does.

On Wednesday, Lieberman denied on Facebook that he is working with Kahlon, saying he will not support anyone other than Netanyahu for prime minister. 

Following the April 9 election, Netanyahu was given the mandate to form a coalition, and had 28 days to do so. That period ends Wednesday, and his talks with potential partners for Likud have reached an impasse. The prime minister was given a two-week extension but if he cannot reach a compromise with Lieberman by June 3, Netanyahu will probably announce a narrow coalition, without Yisrael Beiteinu, of just 60 Knesset members out of 120.

>> Read more: Netanyahu's partners are blackmailing him - and a new election won't save him | Analysis ■ This hot potato threatens Netanyahu's government even before it's formed | Explained

The main point of controversy is the draft law, which Lieberman insists may not be amended at all, and adds that he will not join the coalition if it is changed. In 2018, Lieberman spearheaded a bill that would require ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to meet a quota of students who draft or do national service.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, unlike the rest of the Jewish population in Israel, are currently not conscripted so long as they are studying in yeshiva. United Torah Judaism is insisting on changes to Lieberman's law, without which they will not join the coalition. Attempts to circumvent the problem have not yet succeeded.

Coalition negotiations have been complicated by various ultra-Orthodox demands regarding Shabbat observance, and Union of Right-Wing Parties' Bezalel Smotrich demanding the justice portfolio for the Union of Right-wing Parties. The Shas party is, at least, on board: they have concluded their negotiations.

Netanyahu expects that even if the conscription issue is not resolved, Lieberman will not vote against the Likud coalition, and that he can form a minority coalition. That would give him time to resolve Lieberman’s issues.

Last month Lieberman stated that "If we have before us an alternative of giving up on the draft bill and remaining in the coalition or to be in the opposition, we'll go to elections again." He also said that the ones creating trouble are the ultra-Orthodox parties: “We are trying to maintain common sense and reason on the issue of religion and state. Whoever is not ready for that will be responsible for the government not forming."

Last month, Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism said that one of the main purposes of the Haredi parties is to push an alternative draft law, which would defer the draft of yeshiva students.