Less than two hours before his deadline was set to expire on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hammered out a deal with Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, allowing him to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he had successfully cobbled together a 61-seat coalition — the narrowest of Knesset majorities.
Netanyahu sent Rivlin a letter confirming that his Likud party had clinched a coalition late Wednesday night, after making the announcement. He now has until next Wednesday to swear in his new cabinet.
“I am honored to inform you that I have been successful in forming a government, which I will request is brought before the Knesset for its approval as soon as possible,” Netanyahu wrote in the letter, according to a statement from the President’s Residence. The two men later spoke by phone, and Rivlin said, “I congratulate you on completing the formation of the government. I have received your letter of confirmation, and look forward to the convening of the Knesset as soon as possible, to approve the government.”
In a meeting with Bennett in the Knesset Wednesday night, Netanyahu thanked the Jewish Home party leader for his “efforts during the negotiations and throughout these last weeks.” He also asserted that Israel would have a “strong, stable government,” which he hoped would exceed 61 seats by Wednesday.
“’61 seats is a good number. 61-plus is a better number. But it starts with 61, and we will begin with that,” Netanyahu said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. Good luck to us and to the Israeli nation.”
“We support you,” Bennett told Netanyahu. “We will assist you with all of our strength for the sake of the country and the government, because we have no other land. This government can complete its term in office. We will work hard to make sure of that.” Bennett said that the two parties’ negotiating teams would “work all night” in order to finalize the fine points of the deal.
Netanyahu was understood to have capitulated to the demands of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home, the final recalcitrant coalition partner, and agreed to appoint Bennett as education minister, MK Ayelet Shaked as justice minister, and another Jewish Home member, Uri Ariel, as agriculture minister.
Shaked, 39, has only been in politics for two years. Netanyahu and Bennett were negotiating Wednesday over the scope of her authority in the job. Shaked will also have a seat in the key decision-making security cabinet, by virtue of being justice minister.
Netanyahu is likely to appoint several senior Likud colleagues to the security cabinet too, to offset their unhappiness at missing out on top cabinet posts, and to ensure that the security cabinet supports him on key decisions.
Netanyahu was said to be keeping the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself, in the hope of later giving it to Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. Israel’s Channel 2 reported Wednesday night that Netanyahu really wanted Zionist Union, and not Jewish Home, in the coalition all along, and offered Herzog the post of deputy prime minister. However, Netanyahu did not want Herzog’s colleague Tzipi Livni in his coalition, and Herzog rebuffed his overtures, the TV report said. Likud and Zionist Union both immediately denied the report.
Herzog criticized Netanyahu’s newly formed government shortly after it was announced Wednesday night, saying in a statement that the 61-seat coalition “lacks responsibility, stability and governance.” He also called it a “national disaster of a government. A weak and narrow government, susceptible to blackmail, that will advance nothing and will quickly be replaced by a responsible and hopeful alternative.”
Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 seats in the election six weeks ago, and he signed up United Torah Judaism (six seats), Kulanu (10) and Shas (seven) for a total of 53. Jewish Home’s eight seats gave him the necessary 61 seats to form a government, albeit one with a slim majority.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri on Tuesday urged Herzog to join the coalition, and enable “a socioeconomic government,” but Herzog has insisted he will lead a spirited opposition.
Likud’s Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, on Tuesday conceded that a 61-strong coalition would present “a string of problems,” but acknowledged there may be no choice, and said Netanyahu could make “every effort” later on to sign on more partners. In a statement Wednesday, after the deal between Likud and Jewish Home was announced, he said, “Tonight we are filled with hope that we will march Israel’s security, economy and all other fields forward.”
Netanyahu himself said Tuesday that “61 is a good number; 61-plus is a better number.”
Netanyahu’s calculations were drastically changed when Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Monday that he was resigning and that his six-seat-strong Yisrael Beytenu party would sit in the opposition.
The Likud formally signed its agreement with Shas on Monday night, giving the ultra-Orthodox party the Economy Ministry, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, the post of deputy finance minister and the chairmanship of the Knesset Education Committee.
The ruling faction signed coalition deals with Kulanu and United Torah Judaism last week.
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