With time running out on coalition talks, some Israeli political leaders Friday morning sought to temper assessments that a deal that would see the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties join a presumptive Likud-led coalition was imminent.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, likened the talks to a birth, and, while indicating that a coalition 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.
Meanwhile, Yesh Atid dismissed leaks from Likud sources to the effect that the party’s leader, Yair Lapid, had been offered, and turned down, the post of finance minister.
“I spoke to Yair Lapid yesterday, and he told me that no one had offered him that portfolio, so he couldn’t have turned it down,” MK Yael German of Yesh Atid told Army Radio. “He heard about the proposal over the airwaves.”
Recent assessments say Bennett is set to become finance minister, a largely thankless position that will likely be especially unpopular in the coming term due to the government’s need to patch up a budgetary deficit of some NIS 40 billion ($11 billion).
As for Lapid: Likud sources have maintained that Yesh Atid’s popular leader had his sights set on the prestigious role of foreign minister, which Netanyahu has been reserving for his prime partner, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman.
Liberman served in the position throughout Netanyahu’s previous term, stepping down in late 2012 after he was indicted on charges of breach of trust. Liberman has indicated that if his trial ends in anything but an acquittal, he will retire from politics.
German’s statement is consistent with Yesh Atid’s categorical denial of reports that Lapid’s insistence on the Foreign Ministry was the main sticking point in talks with the Likud. Leaks to that effect from sources close to Netanyahu were nothing but “spin,” the centrist party has maintained.
Channel 2 News on Friday morning cited sources in the political system in reporting that Lapid would in fact serve as interior minister in the next cabinet, a post — currently held by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party’s leader, Eli Yishai — which would allow Yesh Atid to promote its much-touted liberal agenda on conversion to Judaism and the right to marry in Israel.
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 fails 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 will either tap another politician as presumptive prime minister, or call another round of elections. Netanyahu, who, recent surveys indicate, may lose to Lapid if Israelis head back to the polls, is said to be aiming for a Wednesday or Thursday swearing-in ceremony for his new government.
Netanyahu’s cabinet is expected to number 23-24 ministers, five or six fewer than he wanted, and five or six more than Lapid had sought in an effort to slim down what he’s termed Israel’s “bloated” executive branch.
More than the question of the number of ministers, the chief issues to draw out coalition negotiations were Yesh Atid and Jewish Home’s push for a universal conscription law that would extend to young ultra-Orthodox males and the application of new education standards in religious schools. The two parties’ united front on these topics prompted the ultra-Orthodox parties, traditionally allies of Netanyahu, to stay out of the government and launch an acerbic public relations campaign against Bennett and the Jewish Home party.
The emerging deal on ultra-Orthodox service will see more than 400 young males excluded from service each year — the quota sought by Yesh Atid — but still with a dramatic rise in the number of men going into the military.
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, with six seats, is the only party to date to have signed with Likud-Beytenu and its 31. In addition to the position of justice minister, Livni was promised the right to lead peace talks with the Palestinians, an offer that Bennett and Lapid have sought to have withdrawn or amended if they are to join the government.