Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu began informal talks on forming his next government on Sunday, meeting with party leaders in his bloc to discuss their demands for entering the next coalition.
Netanyahu’s first meeting at a Jerusalem hotel was with United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni, who represents the ultra-Orthodox party’s Degel HaTorah faction. The former prime minister then sat down with the party’s Yitzhak Goldknopf, who heads its Agudat Yisrael faction.
Degel HaTorah said in a statement Saturday night that its rabbinic authorities had ordered lawmakers to uphold the party’s long-standing ideological decision to not take up minister positions so as to minimize their responsibility for actions taken by the secular state leadership.
Gafni is expected to request to return to head up the Knesset Finance Committee instead.
As Netanyahu began holding talks — though he has not yet been officially handed the mandate by President Isaac Herzog — Religious Zionism MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir announced that they will be negotiating as a united bloc, attempting to shut down speculation that Netanyahu could seek to split the slate in half.
In a joint statement, Smotrich and Ben Gvir said they have agreed to “a joint bloc and full backing of both parties” — Religious Zionism and Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction — “on the topic of entering the coalition.”
The party leaders stated that “the parties will not enter the coalition without one another. More than half a million voters voted for us in order to bring change — and we are beholden to them.”
Nevertheless, the two are heads of separate parties and Smotrich sat down without Ben Gvir at a meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem Sunday afternoon as part of the informal negotiations. The Likud leader is expected to meet Ben Gvir on Monday.
Meanwhile MK Avi Maoz, the head of the anti-LGBT Noam party which also ran together with Religious Zionism’s far-right slate, said Sunday that he would be conducting his own separate coalition negotiations.
A spokesman for Maoz declined to detail Noam’s demands for entering the government, saying it “does not conduct negotiations via the media.”
Following their separate meetings with Netanyahu, Gafni and Smotrich sat down together at the Knesset for their own coalition talks on Sunday afternoon. A spokesman for Gafni described the sit-down with Smotrich as a “work meeting” ahead of the new government’s formation.
In the wake of last week’s election, speculation has run rampant that Netanyahu might seek to bring the far-right Smotrich and his MKs into his government but leave the even more radical Ben Gvir and his future lawmakers in the opposition.
In past election campaigns, Netanyahu has said Ben Gvir — who has been convicted for incitement to violence, has repeatedly waved his gun around during confrontations and has said he would encourage Arab citizens to emigrate — would not be fit to hold a cabinet post. Last month he backtracked, saying the firebrand MK could hold a ministerial position in his next government.
US officials have indicated in closed-door meetings that they are likely to boycott Ben Gvir if he is handed a cabinet posting, and many Diaspora Jewish groups have expressed alarm at the ascent of the far-right and in particular at the prospect of Ben Gvir joining the cabinet.
Netanyahu is likely concerned at the potential reaction from the US and other Western allies if he hands Ben Gvir a senior position, including a spot on the security cabinet.
Ahead of the election, Ben Gvir publicly proclaimed that he was gunning for the job of public security minister, which oversees the police. Smotrich has reportedly expressed interest in either the justice or defense portfolio. But as talks begin, it is unclear if either lawmaker will receive their demands.
According to Hebrew media reports, the job of justice minister is considered likely to go to Likud MK Yariv Levin, and Smotrich is not considered in line for the job of defense minister, which could go instead to Likud MK Yoav Gallant. While Smotrich has also reportedly expressed interest in becoming finance minister, the latest comments from Likud officials indicate that he may instead be in line for the position of education minister.
Ben Gvir is expected to wage a fierce battle to receive the public security minister job, and it is unclear if Likud negotiators will be able to strike a deal with the extremist MK without handing him the position.
At the moment, however, negotiations have only informally begun, and no jobs or assignments have been confirmed or promised.
Herzog’s office said Sunday that he would begin holding official consultations with party leaders on Wednesday at his residence in Jerusalem, with the meetings broadcast live to the public, and then he is expected to formally task Netanyahu with the job of forming the next government.
The decisive win for Likud and its allied parties in last week’s election makes Netanyahu the clear choice.
Netanyahu’s bloc won 64 seats out of 120, and is expected to form a government with ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ, as well as with the far-right Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.