The right-wing Jewish Home party is close to signing an agreement to join the emergent coalition and will probably cast its lot with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu faction after the next meeting between the two sides, Likud sources said Tuesday afternoon.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, confirmed that there was progress in talks, saying that negotiations “have finally begun to deal with essence” — the policies that would guide the government. “This is good news,” he said.
Representatives of both parties said late Monday that in a breakthrough, they were nearing an agreement on the thorniest issue dominating coalition talks: a universal draft law that would obligate ultra-Orthodox men to join the military or perform national service. The Likud’s conscription plan originally set the age of enlistment at 24, while the Jewish Home had backed a plan espoused by its ally Yesh Atid that set the age of enlistment at 18, the same as the age for the general population. According to the new agreement, the draft age would be set at 21.
Both Jewish Home and Yesh Atid were opposed to the higher age requirement originally proposed by Likud, reasoning that enlisting soldiers at such an age would mean that they wouldn’t be eligible for combat units, that their cost to the army would be substantially higher, and that they would serve only two years as opposed to the mandatory three for others.
If the issue is indeed nearing resolution, the next likely sticking point will be the gap between Likud’s plan to install rather noncommittal “enlistment targets” and Yesh Atid’s call for strict quotas for the enlistment of yeshiva students.
“Recent talks have been positive,” a source from the Jewish Home told Maariv on Monday night. “We are receiving indications from Likud that it is no longer trying to break up our alliance with Lapid and is instead attempting to work with it.”
On Sunday, Bennett had charged that his party’s alliance with Yesh Atid emerged as a result of the Likud-Beytenu efforts to keep him out of the coalition.
Bennett, whose party won 12 seats in the elections, has come under fire from some members of Jewish Home over the past few days for hitching his wagon to that of Lapid. Some Jewish Home faithful charge that Bennett has abandoned the party’s religious nationalist principles and risked blocking the creation of a right-wing government.
Members of the Likud-Beytenu’s negotiating team said they were already conducting coalition talks as if Jewish Home and Yesh Atid were a single body.
A further indication that the talks between Likud and Jewish Home were on track was the Likud’s reported notice to the religious Shas party that it would not retain control of the ministries of Interior and Housing. Shas commanded both of the powerful ministries in the outgoing Cabinet, but the Likud is reportedly interested in keeping one or both of the portfolios for itself.
So far the only party to join Netanyahu’s coalition aside from Yisrael Beytenu — which ran together with the Likud on the same list in the January 22 election — is Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua. The six-seat centrist party signed a coalition agreement, giving it control of the Justice and Environmental Protection ministries, last week.
If Netanyahu is unable to sign coalition agreements with other parties before the end of the week, he will have to go to President Shimon Peres and ask him for a two-week extension on Saturday night. In the unlikely event that he or other party heads prove incapable of forming a coalition, Israelis will once again be asked to cast their votes in general elections.
Ron Friedman contributed to this report.