Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made considerable progress toward building what is set to be a 70-strong coalition, sources close to the negotiations said Friday evening. They stressed, however, that the key deals had yet to be signed, and nothing would be concrete until they were.
The coalition, set to be finalized early next week, will comprise Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2). Labor would lead the opposition, in which the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would also sit, the sources said.
They added that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who had hoped to become foreign minister, will instead serve as finance minister. Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett will be minister of trade and industry. The Foreign Ministry post will be kept open for former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, who resigned in December to fight corruption charges and hopes to return quickly to the post after clearing his name.
The defense minister is likely to be former IDF chief of the General Staff Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), housing could well go to Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, while the same party’s Eli Ben Dahan could take religious affairs, and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz could become minister of welfare. Many ministerial positions, in a cabinet set to number 23-25 ministers, have yet to be finalized, the sources said.
Israeli website News1 said Yesh Atid would also receive at least four ministerial positions in addition to finance, including the Education Ministry, which MK Rabbi Shai Piron would likely head.
The emerging compromise on ultra-Orthodox military service will see 1,500-2,000 scholars exempted from service each year — a far higher number than the 400 cap Yesh Atid had sought. Ultra-Orthodox men will be called for service at age 22, not 18, in another reported compromise.
A Friday morning meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence between Lapid and Netanyahu yielded significant progress, both sides said.
The coalition negotiation teams were scheduled to reconvene Saturday night, and a government could be announced by Wednesday or even sooner, Israel Radio reported.
Earlier on Friday, Bennett likened the talks to a birth, and, while indicating that a coalition with both his and Lapid’s parties was all but inevitable, cautioned that a deal with Netanyahu hadn’t quite crowned.
“If establishing the government was like a labor process, we’d be two fingers dilated, and the doctor would be optimistic,” Bennett tweeted.
Netanyahu, who has until next Saturday to form a coalition, will likely aim to present an agreement to President Shimon Peres upon Peres’s return next Wednesday from a sojourn in Europe.
If Netanyahu failed to present a new government in time — he is already in the midst of a 14-day extension granted him by Peres on March 2 after his first 28 days of efforts proved futile — the president would either tap another politician as presumptive prime minister, or call another round of elections. But that prospect, always unlikely, is receding all the time, the sources said, and Netanyahu is said to be aiming for a Wednesday or Thursday swearing-in ceremony for his new government.
Netanyahu’s cabinet is expected to number 23-25 ministers, several fewer than he wanted, and several more than Lapid had sought in an effort to slim down what he’s termed Israel’s “bloated” executive branch.
According to Israel Radio, the cabinet posts would be filled by eight ministers from Likud, six from Yesh Atid, four from Jewish Home, three from Yisrael Beytenu, two from Hatnua, and one from Kadima.
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, with six seats, is the only party to date to have signed with Likud-Beytenu. In addition to the position of justice minister, Livni was promised the right to lead peace talks with the Palestinians.
Elie Leshem contributed to this report.