The Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties signed a coalition agreement with Likud-Beytenu Friday afternoon, paving the way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to swear in his new government early next week.
“The new government will work together in full cooperation for the benefit of the entire Israeli public. We will act to strengthen the state of Israel’s security and to improve the quality of life of its citizens,” said Netanyahu in a statement.
“We promised during elections to take care of the cost of living, to increase competition in the marketplace and to restore to the state its Jewish soul, and now we’ve got the tools to do it,” Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett told reporters.
“With God’s help, we signed it. The 33rd government is ready to go!,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “I encourage Prime Minister Netanyahu and all of us Cabinet ministers to remember that we are representatives of the entire Israeli public.”
The agreements came on the penultimate day of a six-week period allocated by President Shimon Peres to Netanyahu to muster a majority government. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party signed up to the coalition last month, but Netanyahu then faced weeks of difficult talks with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid over coalition terms.
The two parties insisted on a smaller government — of 22 ministers — and on commitments for radical reform to bring ultra-Orthodox men into military service and the workforce, for a “core curriculum” to be taught in ultra-Orthodox schools, and for electoral reform, among other issues. Their demands were anathema to the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which will now sit in a 52-strong Knesset opposition led by the Labor party.
The coalition agreement had seemed a done deal on Wednesday, but hit a snag Thursday after Jewish Home representatives skipped a final meeting with Likud-Beytenu negotiators, over the issue of whether Bennett would be afforded a “deputy prime minister” title.
According to the final deal, both Bennett and Lapid will forgo the mostly ceremonial title.
In return, Bennett will head the Cabinet panel on concentration of wealth and market competition, and his party will head a joint Knesset committee tasked with drafting a new universal military conscription law, Ynet news reported.
On Thursday, representatives of Jewish Home failed to arrive for a scheduled noon meeting with Likud chief negotiator David Shimron, amid reports that the prime minister’s wife had delayed the final completion of coalition talks by demanding that Bennett — with whom she reportedly fell out when he served as her husband’s chief of staff from 2006-2008 — not be given the title of deputy prime minister. The same title was also therefore to be denied to fellow putative coalition partner Lapid, who worked closely with Bennett during the negotiations.
Shimron said it was an “ugly spin” to claim that Sara Netanyahu was responsible for the “ridiculous” argument over the deputy prime minister designations, and was sure “Mrs. Netanyahu has nothing to do with this.”
Jewish Home sources told Israel Radio that “the decision was one-sided and endangered work relations in the emerging government.”
Likud sources said they had been in contact with Yesh Atid representatives, who also requested that Lapid maintain the title, but that it wasn’t an ultimatum.
The last-minute argument appeared particularly marginal, since the title of “deputy prime minister” does not signify that its holder fills in for the prime minister when he is abroad or incapacitated. In fact, Likud officials said Thursday, the government would have to choose a stand-in PM when necessary, and he or she would come from the main party of the government.
With the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home deals finally signed on Friday afternoon, Netanyahu will now be free to formally notify Peres on Saturday night — the final day of the six weeks allocated to him — that he has mustered a Knesset majority. The coalition will comprise four parties: Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12) and Hatnua (6), for a total of 68 members in the 120-seat Knesset.
The outgoing government is set to hold a final meeting on Sunday, and the new government is likely to be sworn in Monday — some 48 hours before the scheduled arrival of Barack Obama on his first presidential visit.