Five years after he quit as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, and well over two weeks since the elections, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett was finally invited Thursday to meet with the prime minister next week to discuss a possible coalition partnership.
The precise circumstances of Bennett’s abrupt departure from Netanyahu’s employ five years ago have never been fully revealed, but the abidingly chilly nature of the relationship between them was underlined by their perfunctory handshake after the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has antagonized Netanyahu by openly declaring his prime ministerial ambitions, received a far warmer greeting that day, and on Thursday held the second of two lengthy meetings with Netanyahu about a coalition partnership, with an agreement to meet soon for a third.
Somewhat insultingly for Bennett, Netanyahu also met Thursday with left-wing Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, and Tuesday met with Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, neither of whom wish to join the coalition.
Bennett’s Orthodox and politically hardline Jewish Home won 12 seats in the January 22 elections, denting Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu, which managed a disappointing 31. Bennett drew pre-election fire from Netanyahu for declaring that as a soldier he would refuse to follow any order to evacuate settlers, and would rather go to jail, because he considered such an order to be illegal. The prime minister said at the time that there would be no room in his government for politicians who encouraged insubordination in the IDF.
Nonetheless, the Jewish Home is a “natural,” relatively like-minded partner for the Likud, and it has been widely assumed that Netanyahu would want Bennett in his government.
Like Lapid (whose Yesh Atid party won 19 seats in the elections), Bennett has highlighted a goal of ensuring conscription or national service for ultra-Orthodox Israelis, most of whom do not serve, and has been quoted as saying he would not “betray” Lapid by entering a coalition that did not move ahead with this goal.
That stance has led to a series of attacks on both Lapid and Bennett in ultra-Orthodox circles, with Bennett the prime target because he himself is Orthodox.
Shas’s Yom LeYom newspaper ran an editorial on Thursday which said there was “something Reform-ish, something gentile” about Bennett’s Jewish Home party, added that it was not, in fact, “part of the Jewish home,” and even mocked him for his small skullcap. Shas leaders later disassociated themselves from the editorial, but party sources said it would not have appeared without their consent.
Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias, the Shas political leadership trio, each called Bennett on Thursday to apologize — evidently worried that an alienated Bennett, along with Lapid, might gain the upper hand in coalition talks and prevail upon Netanyahu to build a coalition without Shas or the second ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism.
Netanyahu and Lapid met for over two hours Thursday in what was described as “a very good atmosphere” at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Sources in Yesh Atid said Lapid was genuinely prepared to stay out of the coalition if it became clear to him that Netanyahu was not intent on passing legislation to ensure a gradual process of conscription and national service for the ultra-Orthodox. Lapid had emphatically recommended Netanyahu as prime minister in the formal consultations with President Shimon Peres after the elections, the sources said, and crushed the notion of trying to form an anti-Netanyahu bloc in parliament. But Netanyahu, the sources said, now had to make a decision about the nature and thus the direction of his government, and Yesh Atid would determine its role based on that decision.
The sources stressed that the issue of ultra-Orthodox service was one of the key imperatives for Yesh Atid, and that there would no point for the party to sit in a government that did not pursue it. They said Lapid’s proposal — under which anyone in the ultra-Orthodox community could enter the workforce over the next five years, during which the framework for the ultra-Orthodox entry into military or other national service would be finalized and gradually introduced — was not intended as a basis for negotiation. The proposal, which ultimately envisages only 400 annual exemptions from service for exceptional Torah students, was, rather, itself a compromise that would swiftly ease the economic plight of the ultra-Orthodox community while sensitively enabling their gradual introduction to national service.
The sources said the issue of which ministerial positions Yesh Atid might hold was not central to the party’s concerns, and that the Knesset faction had not even formally discussed that matter.
Lapid on Wednesday released a statement saying he saw Torah study as “part of the existential fabric of Israel” and praised those who devoted themselves to it full-time. But that was no excuse for not teaching English and mathematics to young children in the ultra-Orthodox community, he wrote, or “for 18-year-olds not serving their country, or for 28-year-olds not entering the workforce.”