Huge blow to Israeli PM as Lieberman opts out of government

Decision by far-right leader leaves Netanyahu with tiny majority and at mercy of partners

Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman: had a number of scores to settle with Binyamin Netanyahu, and said he “chose principles over cabinet seats”. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman: had a number of scores to settle with Binyamin Netanyahu, and said he “chose principles over cabinet seats”. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

 

In a political bombshell, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has said he will not be joining prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government, criticising the emerging coalition as “opportunist” and not “nationalist”.

The shock announcement came only two days before Mr Netanyahu must present his government to president Reuven Rivlin, having already been granted a two-week extension to conclude arduous coalition negotiations.

Following the March 17th elections Mr Netanyahu was on top of the world, with his right-wing Likud party winning a spectacular 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Forming a predominately right-wing and religious coalition of 67 seats looked like a formality. He now faces a nightmare scenario of a wafer-thin coalition of 61 seats, at the mercy of any one of his coalition partners.

The centrist Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who will become finance minister, and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, have already signed coalition agreements giving Mr Netanyahu 46 seats. Negotiations with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and the far-right Jewish Home are expected to be concluded before Wednesday’s deadline.

Mr Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu won six seats in the election. Long considered a political maverick and with a number of scores to settle with Mr Netanyahu , Mr Lieberman was set to continue as foreign minister in the new government. However, he said he “chose principles over cabinet seats”.

He complained that Mr Netanyahu refused to commit to uproot the Hamas regime in Gaza and would not promise to significantly expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhoods built over the 1967 green line border.

In addition, he criticised Mr Netanyahu for failing to endorse a nationality Bill emphasising Israel’s Jewish character and accused him of planning to join forces with the centre-left Zionist Union, led by Yitzhak Herzog, which won 24 seats in the election.

Mr Herzog ruled out the possibility of a national unity government, saying the Zionist Union would be a “fighting opposition”.

A senior Likud official described a 61-seat coalition as “impossible” and hinted that the Likud’s coalition negotiating tactics had backfired.

“Our mission was to first of all close deals with Shas and Jewish Home, stabilise a coalition, and only then close with Lieberman. The assessment was that the odds of Lieberman preferring the opposition were slim and that he will enter the government in return for the foreign ministry portfolio.”

For the time being Mr Netanyahu is expected to keep the foreign ministry portfolio for himself, leaving open the option of offering it to Mr Herzog in the future , aware that he must make every effort to expand the government if it is to have a realistic chance of survival.