Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday was reportedly courting Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni and castigating Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid. The Jewish Home party was in a verbal dogfight with the Shas party. And there were all sorts of conflicting reports of a pact, or not, between Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Welcome to Day Two of Israel’s formal coalition negotiations.
Tuesday will mark two weeks since Israeli elections gave Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu 31 seats in the incoming Knesset, and thus the best shot at forming a coalition. But although he has plenty of potential partners, the differences between them all are rapidly becoming apparent.
For a start, Lapid’s reported assertion at the weekend that he could go into the opposition and emerge to replace Netanyahu as prime minister in 18 months has reportedly infuriated the incumbent.
According to Channel 2 News on Monday night, Netanyahu has told aides that “What interests Lapid is to be prime minister” rather than to build an effective government. And Likud sources sneered later Monday that Yesh Atid (19 seats) was already betraying its voters by talking of staying out of the government when the party had pledged to join the coalition before and immediately after the elections.
Yesh Atid is still Netanyahu’s best bet for a major coalition partner, but the prime minister and his No.2 Avigdor Liberman were both reported Monday to be in constant touch with former foreign minister Livni, hoping to bring her into the government, or at least have her party’s potential support as a coalition option. Netanyahu’s insistence this week that he wants to revive peace talks, and oversee a “sober” but genuine effort at progress, sources close to him said, was designed in part to win over Livni, who would not join a coalition that was not pushing for progress with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s more “natural” ally, the 12-seat Jewish Home, meanwhile, would oppose major concessions to the Palestinians, but shares Lapid’s priority of bringing ultra-Orthodox youngsters into the army — anathema to Shas. On Saturday, Shas leader Eli Yishai told Channel 2 that Shas would rather remain in the opposition than join a government that includes Yesh Atid.
Jewish Home and Shas have been feuding over the issue. Shas called Jewish Home “the gentiles’ home,” according to Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked on Monday. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, meanwhile, said he considers that “Torah study is an Israeli national interest” and does not regard Torah students as “parasites,” but “those who don’t truly study, must serve.”
Earlier on Monday, a source in the Jewish Home party dismissed a report saying the right-wing list had forged an agreement with Yesh Atid under which both parties would either join a coalition headed by Netanyahu or, together, opt out of such a coalition if Netanyahu doesn’t accede to their policy demands.
“We never had such an agreement on that issue,” the source told The Times of Israel. “[We agree] on many issues, yes, but not on the issue of [politically] living or dying together.”
But according to Channel 10 Monday night, Bennett said in a closed party meeting that while Netanyahu has recently been courting Jewish Home and promised the party first choice of the ministerial portfolios, “I will not betray Lapid.”
In the January 22 elections, the joint Likud-Beytenu list, led by Netanyahu, garnered 31 seats in the next Knesset, followed by Yesh Atid with 19, the Labor Party with 15, and Jewish Home with 12.
The ultra-Orthodox parties won a total 18 seats: 11 for Shas and seven for UTJ.
On Monday, members of the Likud-Beytenu negotiating team held meetings with the representatives of the Hatnua party, Kadima, and UTJ.
Hatnua negotiator Yossi Kutchik said that his party would not serve as a fig leaf for a right-wing/Orthodox government, and that, in addition to various diplomatic issues, Hatnua also places a high priority on military conscription laws that will have all Israelis equally share the burden of national service.
UTJ head Moshe Gafni said that his faction seeks to “be a partner in stabilizing the economic situation” and he criticized those who he said are trying to turn the universal draft into a central issue.
The Kadima party, with two seats, was represented by Yisrael Hasson, who described the meeting as “thorough and pleasant.”
Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich announced in late January that her party would remain in the opposition.
On Saturday night, President Shimon Peres charged Netanyahu with the task of forging the next coalition, and the prime minister, who was recommended by 82 of the 120 incoming MKs to build the next government, said that he would work to establish “the widest possible national unity government.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.