Amid rumors of possible merger, Netanyahu and Kahlon to meet for coalition talks
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Amid rumors of possible merger, Netanyahu and Kahlon to meet for coalition talks

PM and Kulanu party leader to meet for first time since election, but TV report suggests Kahlon cooling on the idea of a union with the Likud party, his former home

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon will meet Thursday morning for coalition-building talks amid reports the prime minister is pushing for Kahlon’s four-seat Kulanu to merge into his Likud party.

The meeting will take place at the prime minister’s private residence in the northern town of Caesarea.

However, Kahlon is reportedly cooling on the idea of a merger between the parties, Channel 13 news reported Wednesday.

Sources close to the Kulanu leader told the outlet that Kahlon will not raise the possibility of a merger during his meeting with the premier, and will not agree to it if offered.

On Monday, Channel 13 news reported Netanyahu had been mulling offering Kahlon the post of foreign minister, a high-profile position that he kept for himself during his previous term, and had made the offer in a telephone call on Sunday.

However, Kahlon, who served as finance minister in the outgoing government, is believed to be insisting on holding on to that position, the report said.

Head of the Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon speaks to party supporters as the results in the Israeli general elections, are announced, at the party headquarters, on April 9, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The two leaders haven’t met since the April 9 election, though Netanyahu has sat down with all the other parties he hopes to fold into his coalition, namely Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism, Shas, and the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

If a Likud-Kulanu merger goes ahead, it could boost Netanyahu’s battle against corruption allegations.

Kahlon had said until recently that he would not support the prime minister remaining in office if he is charged in the three corruption cases in which he is facing indictment pending a hearing. Political analysts said Thursday that Netanyahu would be unlikely to approve a merger with Kahlon if the finance minister was still standing by that position.

Kahlon cut his teeth as a Likud politician, passing popular reforms as communications minister before leaving the party and taking a break from politics amid rumors of tensions with Netanyahu. He founded Kulanu in 2015, becoming the most senior partner in the Netanyahu-led government with 10 seats.

If he enters the new coalition, Kulanu’s current four seats will make it the smallest party in the government. Despite his poorer showing, Kahlon is insisting on keeping the Finance Ministry for himself and having MK Eli Cohen stay on as economy minister.

The demands of Kulanu, which has focused on economic issues, are thought to pale in comparison to tougher negotiations expected with the other likely coalition partners.

On Sunday, negotiators for Yisrael Beytenu and Likud met for the first round of coalition negotiations, with the former presenting a list of demands on security, immigration, and religion and state issues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, at the Knesset on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The sides failed to come to any agreement and said they would meet again at a later date.

The most thorny issue is expected to be legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students, which the secularist Liberman is insisting should be passed without amendment, while ultra-Orthodox parties have said they will not join the coalition if it is advanced without changes.

Both Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox are essential for Netanyahu if he is to assemble a governing coalition with a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset. His Likud party won 35 seats.

Liberman has backed Netanyahu as the next premier, cementing the right-wing coalition at 65 seats. But his party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.

The Union of Right-Wing Parties is demanding the justice and education portfolios, as well as wide ranging legislative concessions.

URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich also reiterated Sunday that the party aims to push legislation amending the law providing immunity from prosecution for MKs. As things stand, an MK can seek immunity from prosecution via a majority in the Knesset House Committee and the plenum; URWP seeks to revert to the version of the law that was in force until 2005, under which an MK was automatically granted immunity from prosecution unless the House Committee and then a majority of MKs in the plenum voted to lift it.

MK Bezalel Smotrich. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Smotrich denied on Sunday that he was seeking to change the law in order to help Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges in three cases pending a hearing. “The immunity law is not intended to serve the prime minister. He is not the story here, and this legislation, or something like it, is necessary even if Netanyahu opposes it,”said Smotrich. “This is a law intended to serve the Israeli public and democracy, a law that aims… to enable elected officials to devote their time and efforts to the state and not to hearings in the courts.”

A source in the party claimed to Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu might actually oppose such legislation, since it would bring him into open conflict with the state prosecution. But Yedioth also noted that URWP initiating such legislation might be convenient for him, since he could claim not to be behind the initiative but would potentially benefit from it.

Netanyahu has denied all allegations of wrongdoing and asserted that he has no need for immunity since he is confident he will not be indicted. At the same time, in the run-up to the elections, he gave mixed messages about whether he would seek or back legislative initiatives, including a so-called “French Law” to render him immune prosecution so long as he is prime minister.

Netanyahu has until mid-May, and possible several weeks longer, to assemble a coalition, after President Reuven Rivlin tasked him with forming a government.

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