Likud-Beytenu’s coalition team met Friday with negotiators from the hardline-Orthodox Jewish Home party, and then with the ultra-Orthodox Shas, as talks on a new government continued more than a month after Knesset elections were held.
The Likud-Jewish Home talks were held “in a good atmosphere” and dealt with aspects of the coalition’s “framework,” Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel said afterwards.
Representatives of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party were reported to have discussed but not demanded the possible revocation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement with Hatnua chief Tzipi Livni, whereby Livni joins a Likud-led coalition in exchange for the Justice Ministry portfolio and heading peace talks with the Palestinians. Bennett has been an outspoken critic of such negotiations, and his party represents a cross-section of voters who are largely opposed to a two-state solution along pre-1967 lines.
On Wednesday, Bennett attacked Livni’s past role in negotiations with the Palestinians, including her purported willingness to divide Jerusalem and hand the West Bank city of Ariel to the Palestinians. (Livni denies both assertions.)
Friday’s talks ended without any specific signs of progress, and the Likud-Beytenu team then met with Shas’s leadership triumvirate of Aryeh Deri, Ariel Atias and Eli Yishai. Netanyahu’s key challenge is to find a formula for expanding the number of ultra-Orthodox young men entering military service; Jewish Home and Yesh Atid want almost all Haredi men to serve, while Shas and United Torah Judaism want wide-scale exemptions for full-time Torah study.
Three weeks after Shimon Peres charged Netanyahu with forming a coalition, it is this issue that has made the task so complex, and is gradually fueling speculation that Netanyahu may not be able to build a Knesset majority, though his aides remain confident he will do so.
The Likud-Jewish Home talks included discussion of a proposal put together by Eugene Kandel, the head of Israel’s National Economic Council, according to which the IDF would draft upwards of 60% of ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 18-24 within five years, and the government would provide monetary incentives to those who comply while penalizing the yeshivas of those who don’t. The Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties rejected the Kandel proposal when Netanyahu’s team pitched it in earlier coalition talks.
According to a source within Shas, Friday’s meeting ended without progress and there are still significant gaps between the two sides regarding ultra-Orthodox service.
Negotiations were cut short because of time constraints due to Shabbat, and the Likud-Beytenu and Shas teams agreed to meet again on Tuesday. Likud-Beytenu talks with Jewish Home will also resume next week.
The Jewish Home has made it clear that an alliance formed with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, according to which both parties would either join the government together or join the opposition, remains firm. Jewish Home representatives on Friday also said they backed Yesh Atid’s demand that ultra-Orthodox schools teach the full “core curriculum” of subjects, including English and Mathematics, as a condition for state funding.
“The pact with Lapid is iron-clad,” party sources said. “We would rather have new elections than join the government without him.”
Talk of new elections has been hovering over coalition negotiations this week, with threats reportedly coming from Likud-Beytenu, as well.
Moshe Klughaft, a member of Jewish Home’s negotiating team, responded to those threats on Friday, urging the largest faction in the Knesset to fulfill the will of the electorate.
Instead of making empty threats about new elections, it is necessary to start talking about fulfilling the will of the people in these elections, he told Israel Radio.
Klughaft emphasized that the entry of Jewish Home and Yesh Atid into a Netanyahu-led coalition would be based on negotiated principles and not on the handing out of government portfolios.
A Knesset Channel poll published Thursday found that if Netanyahu ultimately fails to assemble a coalition, and new elections are subsequently called, Yesh Atid would win a staggering 30 seats, overtaking Netanyahu’s freefalling Likud-Beytenu as the Knesset’s largest faction.
To date, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu (31 seats) has drawn only Livni’s Hatnua (6) into the coalition. On Thursday, leaders of Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12) and Kadima (2) held talks at which they resolved not to join the coalition without a commitment from Netanyahu to legislate for the conscription of most ultra-Orthodox young men.
If these parties hold to that position, and Labor (15 seats) remains resolute about going into the opposition, Netanyahu would find it impossible to garner a Knesset majority even with both ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7). His aides remain optimistic that the Yesh Atid-Jewish Home alliance can yet be broken. He has until the beginning of March to form a coalition, but can also ask for a 14-day extension from President Peres.