Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who is expected to be appointed defense minister and bring his party into the government, has dubbed his change of fortunes as a "double achievement for the Russian-speaking community in Israel."
Lieberman, whose party will receive the Immigration Absorption Ministry as well after reaching an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Yedioth Ahronoth's Russian-language publication Vesti that "receiving the Defense Ministry is, to me, an important stage in shattering the glass ceiling that we, the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have been facing over the years."
Lieberman also obtained a promise from the prime minister that the work on current Immigration Absorption Minister Ze'ev Elkin's pensions reform will continue and be completed, a central issue for Yisrael Beytenu. The reform seeks to ensure that immigrants would receive a proper pension regardless of the number of years of service. In addition, Yisrael Beytenu's initiative to impose the death penalty on terrorist will also receive the coalition's support.
"If we can resolve the issue of pensions for the immigrants, then that would be an immense achievement that was reached thanks to insistence and persistence," Lieberman told Vesti. "If we can finalize this agreement and join the government, then this double achievement expresses the recognition of the status of immigrants and the Russian-speaking community in Israel."
Labor leader Isaac Herzog's attempts to join the government were seen as a threat by the right wing, mostly because of the Labor leader's demand to receive an assurance in writing from the prime minister that he would have veto privileges over decisions on construction in the settlements.
Elkin and the head of the Samaria regional council, Yossi Dagan, decided to thwart Herzog's ambitions and, with the help of Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and head of the Likud branch in Judea and Samaria Shevah Stern, the two asked Netanyahu for the green light to approach Lieberman.
After Netanyahu consented, the group set to work and set up the move over the last few days. In an effort to promote the move, Elkin gave an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he expressed vehement objection to adding Herzog to the government—warning such a move would only serve to strengthen Lieberman.
Many in the Likud were doubtful the effort to bring Lieberman into the government would be successful, after the prime minister and the Yisrael Beytenu spent the last year hurling insults at one another while the latter was in the opposition.
Lieberman himself did not trust Netanyahu and suspected he was being used as leverage against Herzog. But the pressure from the right was immense, including threats that MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Uri Ariel of Tekuma (a faction within Bayit Yehudi) would quit the coalition, leading to a situation in which Herzog holds power over the government.
Lieberman named his price—the Defense Ministry—and while Netanyahu was not enthused by the demand, he conceded.
After his private meeting with the prime minister on Wednesday afternoon, Lieberman met with Likud Minister Yariv Levin, appointed as Netanyahu's point man during the negotiations, to finalize the rest of the agreement's details. Talks are expected to continue on Thursday morning and an official involved in the negotiations said only the technical details remained, and the agreement should be signed either by the end of the day or on Friday.
One of the issues still up for negotiations is Yisrael Beytenu's request to advance one of its legislation proposals that seeks to fund 90 percent of the mortgage for young couples. The bill has so far been met with objection from the Finance Ministry both under Yair Lapid's leadership in the 19th Knesset and under Moshe Kahlon's leadership in the 20th.
Lieberman held a press conference earlier Wednesday saying he was willing to discuss the possibility of bringing his party into the government, but that he has yet to receive any official offer. The press conference was followed immediately by a call from Netanyahu, who invited Lieberman for a one-on-one meeting on the issue, which bore fruit.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor), who has been negotiating the option of adding his own party into the government as well, was quick to follow Lieberman's press conference with one of his own, in which he announced he would not continue talks while Lieberman was also in talks with the prime minister.
As the afternoon wore on, Lieberman's successful meeting with Netanyahu led the prime minister to hold conversations with the heads of the partiers in his coalition, in which he updated them about the recent developments.
Netanyahu also called current Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon to tell him his job had been offered to Lieberman. The prime minister is currently examining the option of giving Ya'alon the Foreign Ministry instead.
Meanwhile, current Immigration Absorption Minister Elkin will receive a limited economy portfolio, including just industry and trade. The employment portfolio will be given to Welfare Minister Haim Katz. The Immigration Absorption Ministry will be given to Lieberman's close Yisrael Beytenu ally Sofa Landver, which served in the role before.
Itamar Eichner and Yuval Karni contributed to this report.