Liberman returning to defense ministry but major stumbling block remains in coalition talks

Liberman will become defense minister, a role he filled in the previous government. 

By David Isaac, World Israel News

With only a week left for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cobble together a coalition government, a breakthrough on at least one front has been reported. Avigdor Liberman, head of the Israel Beiteinu party, has agreed to join the coalition in exchange for the defense portfolio, daily paper Yediot Ahronot reported on Thursday.

Liberman served as defense minister in the previous government. It was his abrupt departure in November stemming from his frustration with his inability to push Netanyahu to take tougher action against Hamas in Gaza, that started the chain of events that led to the previous government’s collapse.

Now Liberman will again sit in the defense chair but on condition, sources tell Yediot, that he’s “not returning to the same point as when he decided to quit that position.” In other words, he will have a wider range of action to deal with Hamas.

On Wednesday, Liberman met with Netanyahu. He also met with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and the head of Shabak Nadav Argaman, signaling that his ascendancy to the defense ministry is assured, Yediot reports.

According to Yediot, Israel Beiteinu, which won a total of five seats in the April elections, will also receive the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The post will be filled by the party’s No. 2 man Oded Forer, who has previously served in the position.

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Time is running out for Netanyahu to form a new government. He has already received a two-week extension beyond the deadline until May 29. On Sunday, he urged his potential future partners to get down from the “treetops,” by which he meant that they should step back from their unrealistic demands.

A major sticking point is the Draft Law, which seeks to recruit Haredim, a segment of the Orthodox that has resisted serving in Israel’s armed forces. Liberman strongly supports passing the Draft Law, which bogged down in the previous government.

Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which together won 16 Knesset seats, are seeking changes to the wording of the proposed law, which Liberman opposes.

Israel Hayom reports on Thursday that Likud and Haredi party negotiators have made progress, agreeing to maintain the status quo between religion and state, and to oppose any private legislation touching on those issues.

A source close to the negotiations between the Likud and the Haredi parties, told Israel Hayom, “Until now they said ‘don’t agree,’ ‘don’t want,’ ‘don’t know how to solve the problem.'”

“Yesterday, apparently because of the hourglass, they started to take an interest in possible solutions, to talk. This is the start of coming down from the tree tops toward a middle way.”

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Liberman’s party on the other hand says it’s not familiar yet with the agreements being hammered out with the Haredi parties and continues to oppose changes to the Draft law.

The Walla! news site sounded a pessimistic note, reporting on Thursday that no breakthrough had been made despite reports of the apparent deal to give Liberman the defense portfolio.

Sources tell the website, “There’s no progress in the Draft Law. Liberman isn’t prepared to move a millimeter and isn’t prepared for any change to the Draft Law.”