Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to renew coalition discussions with the Shas and Jewish Home parties on Sunday, a day after he received a 14-day extension to form a government from President Shimon Peres. Netanyahu now has until March 16 to form a governing coalition.
On Saturday, Jewish Home leader Naftali 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 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 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.
Likud negotiator Shimron dismissed Bennett’s demand that Netanyahu cancel or amend his coalition agreement with Hatnua, headed by Tzipi Livni, the only party to join Netanyahu so far, saying that “we are not seriously listening to him” on the issue and calling the demand a “childish matter.”
Livni was promised the Justice Ministry and the lead role in negotiations with the Palestinians in exchange for joining the nascent government, which Bennett opposes due to her strong push for a two-state solution, a position anathema to the religious Zionist leader.
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 males. 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.
Former coalition chairman Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin said Sunday that Netanyahu is interested in establishing as broad a coalition as possible so that no single party can bend the government to its will.
The ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally been allies of Netanyahu, but Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas 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 Jewish Home leader Naftali 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 — and likely will — 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.