Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed coalition negotiations Sunday, meeting with Shas’s leaders after a Saturday night exchange of recriminations with Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett.
In the meeting with Shas heads Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Attias, Netanyahu said he’d like to see the ultra-Orthodox party join the coalition, but that “political complications” were standing in his way.
Netanyahu received on Saturday a 14-day extension to form a government from President Shimon Peres. The prime minister now has until March 16 to form a governing coalition, or see the task assigned to a rival politician or face new elections.
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 cobble 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.
Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen charged Sunday that the settlers, who make up much of the Jewish Home party’s core constituency, were responsible for most of Israel’s security demands and therefore Jewish Home has no right to talk about other sectors’ failure to share their part of the security burden.
Cohen also claimed that the only common denominator between Jewish Home and Yesh Atid is their “boycott of the Haredim” and wondered aloud, in an interview on Israel Radio, how they would like it if Haredim boycotted goods produced in the settlements.
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 morning, 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.
If Netanyahu fails to form a governing coalition by March 16, US President Barack Obama may cancel the working visit he has scheduled for March 20.
Such a cancellation of Obama’s first visit to Israel as president would be hugely embarrassing for the Jewish state, whose leaders have long urged Obama to come. Israel’s alliance with the United States is by far its most important international partnership. The two leaderships have said they would consult on efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, the instability in Syria, ways to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, and other vital issues.