Having used up his allotted four-week period to form a coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned to President Shimon Peres Saturday evening and obtained a 14-day extension which, he hopes, will yet enable him to form a majority government.
Peres granted the prime minister an extra two weeks, allowing him through March 16 to assemble a coalition. No further extension is legally permitted.
The two leaders announced the decision at a brief press conference in Jerusalem.
“Mr. President, you tasked me with forming a coalition 28 days ago — a broad, governing coalition to address the wide issues facing Israel: the economy, our security, and also our sharing of the national burden. We need a responsible government to face these demands,” Netanyahu said.
“I can say that the reason I haven’t been able to form a coalition is because of those who have ganged up on me,” he added, referencing two of his potential coalition partners — Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid; and Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party.
The prime minister said he wouldn’t accept a government that “gangs up on other groups,” such as those living in the West Bank. Netanyahu alluded to the idea that Bennett is selling out on his voter base by joining with Lapid, particularly since Jewish Home won a lot of support from settlers in the last election.
“I believe that the ultra-Ortho
Netanyahu’s efforts to cobble together a stable coalition have been immensely complicated by an alliance between Lapid and Bennett, who are working together to demand new legislation to draft most ultra-Orthodox males. The ultra-Orthodox parties are opposed to an overly drastic change, and Netanyahu has thus far been unable to resolve this and other differences between his potential coalition parties.
His chief negotiator, David Shimron, said Thursday that Yesh Atid stated flatly in their latest talks that it saw “no place” for the ultra-Orthodox in the next government. And after talks between Likud-Beytenu and the Jewish Home party came to an abrupt end on Friday afternoon, Shimron claimed that Jewish Home was also opposed to the inclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition.
Ultra-Orthodox MKs slammed Jewish Home for this ostensible stance. MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism asserted that Bennett, an observant Jew, had “declared war on the world of Torah.” He said the Jewish Home head’s hatred of the ultra-Orthodox ran so deep that he was “willing to place the fate of the Land of Israel in the hands of Yesh Atid MKs and Yair Lapid, who has attacked the settlers in Judea and Samaria in the past.”
Sources close to Bennett said Friday that, unlike the centrist Yesh Atid party, Jewish Home was not insisting on excluding any parties from the coalition. However, Jewish Home and Yesh Atid have agreed that they either enter the coalition together, or go into the opposition together.
Before the Netanyahu-Peres press conference Saturday evening, Lapid wrote on his Facebook page that he wouldn’t sit in a government with ultra-Orthodox parties that don’t accept the demand of sharing the national burden.
Channel 2 News reporter Amit Segal claimed that Netanyahu had admitted, behind closed doors, that he wouldn’t be able to break the Lapid-Bennett union.
After the press conference, Eli Yishai, one of the leaders of the Haredi Shas party, asserted that Lapid isn’t working to improve the lot of the middle class, as he promised he would during his campaign, “but that his real objective is keeping the ultra-Orthodox out of the government, on the edge of society.”
“I need more time to form a coalition. Thank you for accepting my request,” Netanyahu said to the president, who in turn again wished Netanyahu luck in assembling a majority government.
“I heard, directly from your lips, that you believe you can do it [form a government],” Peres said. “We are a democracy, and a democracy also demands a responsible government. I hope you are successful in your endeavor.”
March 16 is the legal deadline for Netanyahu to successfully complete coalition negotiations, or inform Peres that he has failed to do so.
A failure to form a coalition by March 16 could require Peres to charge a different politician with the task of forming a government. If that proved impossible, Israel would have to hold another round of elections.
Another implication of Netanyahu’s possible failure to form a governing coalition by March 16 is that President Barack Obama may cancel his imminent visit to Israel. Obama is due to arrive in Israel on March 20 for a working visit, his first as president.
If Netanyahu has not managed to form a coalition by then, Obama will reportedly cancel his visit, set to start four days later.
Confirming the trip almost four weeks ago, Israeli and US officials made clear that the president was timing the visit so as to ensure Israel would have a new government in place by the time he arrived. Israel held elections on January 22; Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu emerged as the largest slate, and Netanyahu was formally charged with the task of building a coalition on February 2. The assumption was that he would have mustered a viable majority ahead of the president’s arrival.
The enforced 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.
As of Saturday night, with his various potential coalition partners deeply at odds, Netanyahu had signed up only Tzipi Livni’s six-seat Hatnua party 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. In that way, he would safeguard both his prime ministership and the Obama visit.
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.