Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid Thursday afternoon for the first time since election results placed the political newcomer at the helm of the country’s second-largest party.
The two leaders met for two-and-a-half hours, at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Significantly, this was the first face-to-face coalition meeting Netanyahu has held since Tuesday’s elections.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the talks took place in “a very good atmosphere” and focused on “the challenges facing the state.” The two agreed to meet again shortly.
Formal negotiations on a new government can begin only after President Shimon Peres meets in the next few days with the various party leaders and hears their recommendations for the best candidate to form the new government. Tuesday’s elections, giving Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu 31 seats, mean he is certain to be the favored choice. Lapid’s 19 seats make him a prime potential coalition partner.
Both leaders have expressed a desire to see a broad coalition lead the country in the coming years.
On Wednesday, Lapid said he would not join a blocking majority, as urged by left-wing party leaders, to prevent the prime minister from forming a government. His comment virtually guaranteed that Netanyahu will continue as prime minister.
Netanyahu has numerous coalition options but it was telling that his first meet was with Lapid, rather than right-wing rival Naftali Bennett or leaders of one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties — his “natural” allies.
Former foreign minister and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman hinted Thursday that he would be willing to abandon his own preference for taking back the foreign affairs portfolio — he resigned last month to battle a corruption charge — in favor of Lapid. On Wednesday, Liberman had intimated that because of his concern for socioeconomic affairs, Lapid might more naturally gravitate to the Finance Ministry.
“The Foreign Ministry portfolio doesn’t have my name on it,” Liberman said Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu placed a phone call to Jewish Home party leader Bennett, as election rivalries began to give way to coalition talks.
According to Jewish Home officials, Bennett and Netanyahu congratulated each other on their election successes, although the two did not schedule a face-to-face meeting.
Despite that fact that Jewish Home quadrupled the national religious voice in the Knesset to win 12 seats, the party was not at the top of Netanyahu’s call list.
Netanyahu contacted Shas chairman Eli Yishai and Lapid shortly after the first exit polls came out on Tuesday evening.
In the past three months, while campaigning was at its peak, Netanyahu’s Likud party expended great effort to discredit Bennett’s party, which it saw as the main competitor for the right-wing vote.
Bennett worked as an aide to Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu laid out his principles for forming a new government. Netanyahu said that a more equitable distribution of the national burden, affordable housing and changing the system of government would be his coalition’s top three priorities.
“I spoke to [Likud-Beytenu No. 2] Liberman and we decided that we will focus our talks on these three core issues, in addition to maintaining Israel’s security, in an effort to build as broad a coalition as possible,” Netanyahu told reporters the day after the election.
The declaration seemed to be aimed primarily at Lapid, who won 19 seats with a campaign that focused exactly on those issues.