Liberman: Gantz is not ready to be PM; only I pose a challenge to Netanyahu

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Thursday said Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was not yet ready to be prime minister and appeared to be challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the job, further whittling down the already long-shot prospects of a ruling coalition being formed after next week’s elections.

At the same time, Liberman insisted that Israel would not be dragged to a fourth national vote in a year.

Liberman was in a kingmaker position after the April and September votes, holding the balance of power between the Netanyahu-led right-Orthodox bloc and Gantz’s center-left-Arab opposition, but refrained from joining either one.

Following the April elections, he refused to join a prospective Netanyahu coalition over disagreements with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox political allies, and hostilities with the Haredi parties have escalated since. After the September vote, Liberman said he would only join a unity government made up of Likud and Blue and White and his Yisrael Beytenu party. When Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form such a government, a third election was called for March 2.

On Wednesday, the right-wing secularist Liberman said he had given up on a unity government, too. He has also rejected the possibility of joining a Gantz-headed minority government supported by the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List, whose politicians the hawkish former defense minister has long branded as “terror supporters.”

Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious allies have been negotiating as a bloc in support of the prime minister and have shown few signs they would break ranks and back Gantz.

“The two gentlemen [Netanyahu and Gantz] together picked up 65 seats and instead of forming a unity government opted to fight over who would be first and who would be second in a rotation [of the premiership],” Liberman told the Ynet news site on Thursday. (Blue and White won 33 seats in September; Likud won 32.)

“I would be happy to go with Likud, sans Netanyahu, but I see their ‘gevalt’ campaign and the one by Blue and White. The real ‘gevalt’ is that the day after elections, Gantz and Netanyahu will try to one-up each other and sell everything to the Haredim,” he said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox.

Likud has resisted calls by the center and left to oust Netanyahu and reelected him as leader in late December primaries, despite his looming trial on a series of corruption charges, including bribery.

Gantz is a “good guy,” but he is “not yet ready to be prime minister,” opined Liberman in the interview.

“The only one who can challenge Netanyahu in the political arena is Avigdor Liberman,” said Liberman.

Asked why he was not directly challenging Netanyahu for the highest office, Liberman said he was concerned with the values of the future government, rather than seeking a job or promotion.

Even as he appeared to rule out all possible scenarios for a future government, Liberman pledged that Israelis would not find themselves back at the ballot box in a few months’ time.

“There won’t be fourth elections. The key is indeed in my hands and this time we will decide. I thought and I still think today that the State of Israel, in terms of its national interests, must form a national unity government.”

“100 percent. There will be a government [after Monday’s election],” he added.

On Wednesday, Liberman pledged to “build a government without Netanyahu,” and said “there are no more [prospects of a] unity [government].”

Recent opinion polls have seen Likud edge ahead of Blue and White but suggested neither Likud nor Blue and White will be able to form a majority government without each other, signaling the political deadlock could continue after Monday’s vote.

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