A day after trading recriminations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett sat down Sunday to try to hack out a coalition agreement.
The unusually long, three-hour meeting, attended by the prime minister, Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, was described afterwards as “positive and productive” by Jewish Home officials. The three party leaders discussed a universal draft and the possibility of having Jewish Home join the governing coalition, but made no clear breakthrough.
The Jewish Home and Likud-Beytenu leaders sides agreed to continue speaking in the near future, though Netanyahu has only 14 days to cobble together a coalition before President Shimon Peres attempts to find another potential prime minister, or new elections could be called.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu met with Shas leaders Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Attias, saying he’d like to see the ultra-Orthodox party join the coalition, but that “political complications” were standing in his way, a reference to a decision by Jewish Home and Yesh Atid, which have formed an alliance, that they will not enter the government separately, and to Yesh Atid’s stance that it will not join a coalition with Haredi parties.
Netanyahu received on Saturday a 14-day extension to form a government from Peres. The prime minister now has until March 16 to form a coalition.
On Saturday, Bennett accused Netanyahu of shunning the Jewish Home party, saying that “for days after the election the Likud refused to speak to the Jewish Home. They boycotted us… we expected to be a natural partner and to be the first to enter the Netanyahu government.”
Bennett alleged in a Facebook post that the message from the Likud has been that the “religious Zionist party won’t enter the coalition, at any price.” Jewish Home’s subsequent agreement with the Yesh Atid party to join either the government or the opposition together has since forced Netanyahu into a corner.
“We don’t boycott people,” responded chief Likud negotiator David Shimron on Sunday. “They are trying to punish us because Bennett’s phone rang after Gal-on’s,” he said, referring to the highly publicized incident where, after the January 22 elections, Netanyahu called Bennett only after holding phone conversations with several other party leaders, including the left-wing Meretz head Zahava Gal-On.
“If Netanyahu had decided to form a nationalistic coalition after the elections, the Jewish Home would have joined right away,” Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked told Channel 10 on Sunday. “Unfortunately, his aspiration was to send the Jewish Home to the opposition.” Shaked also revealed that at the same time her party held discussions with Yesh Atid, it also discussed alliance possibilities with Shas, but was rejected.
Netanyahu’s efforts to put together a stable coalition have been immensely complicated by the alliance between the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties, which are working together to demand new legislation to draft most ultra-Orthodox young men. The ultra-Orthodox parties are opposed to a drastic change, and Netanyahu has thus far been unable to resolve this and other differences between his potential coalition parties.
The ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally been allies of Netanyahu, but Yishai said on Sunday morning via his Facebook page that he expected a government to form in the coming days without the ultra-Orthodox parties, and accused Bennett of “sacrificing the future of the settlements on the altar of hatred of the ultra-Orthodox.”
The alliance between Bennett and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid has drawn fire from several quarters, with accusations that Bennett, as head of a religious Zionist party opposed to a Palestinian state, has sold out by partnering with Yesh Atid, which supports a two-state solution. On Saturday, Yishai accused Yesh Atid of focusing solely on ultra-Orthodox issues, as opposed to the economic issues he campaigned on.
As of Sunday, with his various potential coalition partners deeply at odds, Netanyahu had signed up only Hatnua and its six seats to his coalition, and the differences between the other parties appeared very hard to reconcile. But were Netanyahu to decide to exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties, however reluctantly, his Likud-Beytenu party (31 seats) could expect to finalize coalition terms with Yesh Atid (19 seats) and Jewish Home (12 seats) fairly rapidly, and thus gain a governing majority.
Alternatively, he could try again to pressure Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich to join a coalition without Jewish Home and Yesh Atid, but with the two ultra-Orthodox parties. Yachimovich has met several times with Netanyahu, but emerged each time to restate that their political differences are too wide to bridge.
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