Potential kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday he will not back either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz for Israeli prime minister, just hours after the president began talks to break the post-election deadlock.
Lieberman spoke to journalists after President Reuven Rivlin began consulting political parties on who they will back for prime minister.
Lieberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party won eight seats in the 120-seat parliament in Tuesday’s election.
Lieberman has insisted on a unity government between his party, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White.
He said he could not for now back Netanyahu because he is willing to form a coalition with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which he accuses of seeking to impose religious law on the secular population.
Lieberman also said he could not back Gantz for now because he may reach a deal with either the ultra-Orthodox or Israel’s Arab parties, which he called “enemies”.
Arab parties back Gantz
For their part, Israel’s Arab parties announced on Sunday that they will back Gantz.
The mainly Arab Joint List alliance made the announcement at roughly the same time as its leader, Ayman Odeh, published an opinion piece on the New York Times website speaking of the move. It was the first time since 1992 that majority Arab parties have endorsed a candidate for prime minister.
Shortly later, Odeh told Rivlin that the alliance’s priority was to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, and was therefore recommending Gantz.
The Joint List won 13 seats in the election, making them the third-largest force in the 120-seat legislature, although one party within the alliance, accounting for three seats, signalled it was against the decision.
In last week’s vote, Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party won 33 seats in the 120-member parliament, while incumbent Netanyahu’s conservative Likud took 31 seats. Neither can muster a parliamentary majority with their traditional smaller allies.
Last week’s vote happened because Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition after April’s election without the support of Lieberman, an unpredictable ally-turned-rival who has upended Israeli politics in recent months.
Possible corruption charges
Complicating matters is Blue and White’s refusal to sit with Netanyahu because he faces a likely indictment on corruption charges.
The first step out of the quagmire is the consultations at the president’s residence, where each of the parties is asked to make its recommendations. Though Netanyahu’s Likud dropped in support, its allies appear to give Netanyahu the support of 55 members of parliament. For Gantz to compete, he’ll need the backing of the Joint List of Arab parties, which emerged as the third largest party with 13 seats, and has traditionally refrained from openly endorsing a candidate for prime minister.
Rivlin’s eventual candidate will have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If that fails, Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition. And if that doesn’t work, new elections would be triggered yet again. Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario and no one appears interested in a third Israeli election within a year.
Overhanging the whole process is Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing scheduled in two weeks, after which he could face charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three separate corruption cases. Netanyahu had hoped to secure a narrow majority of hard-line and religious parties that support granting him immunity from prosecution. With immunity now off the table, Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office despite the long odds.
Israeli law does not require a sitting premier to resign if indicted. But if he is charged, as is widely expected, he would come under heavy pressure to resign.