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As Netanyahu’s coalition deadline nears, Likud signs interim deal with UTJ

Haredi party says it signed agreement on its government posts due to PM-designate’s likely need to request a two-week extension beyond December 11 from president

United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni (left) and Yitzhak Goldknopf (right) sign an interim coalition deal with Likud negotiator Yariv Levin on December 6, 2022. (Courtesy)
United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni (left) and Yitzhak Goldknopf (right) sign an interim coalition deal with Likud negotiator Yariv Levin on December 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

With prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s deadline to form a coalition fast approaching, his Likud party signed an interim coalition deal with United Torah Judaism on Tuesday night.

According to UTJ, the party signed a document stating that it had agreed to the allocation of roles in the next government, “since an extension needs to be requested from the president.”

The ultra-Orthodox party said that it will hold another meeting on Wednesday to hammer out “fundamental issues” before signing a final coalition agreement.

With a December 11 deadline approaching, Netanyahu’s Likud party has yet to reach coalition deals with all the parties in the right-religious bloc that he led to victory in the November 1 election.

Netanyahu is widely expected to ask Herzog for a two-week extension, but will need to explain why talks so far have not produced an agreement from his allies.

In the agreement with UTJ, the party is slated to receive control of the Construction and Housing Ministry, expected to go to faction chief Yitzchak Goldknopf, and the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, slated to be held by MK Moshe Gafni.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meets in Jerusalem with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

The party will also control the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, receive several deputy minister positions and control a handful of other Knesset committees.

The deal was signed as Netanyahu faces a dilemma on how best to explain to President Isaac Herzog why he needs more time to cobble together a coalition if he wants to be granted further time to try to form a government.

According to a Channel 12 news report, Netanyahu must choose between convincing Herzog he needs more time to get all the parties on board, or informing the president that he actually has their commitment but the extension is required in order to pass legislation needed to finalize coalition agreements.

The report noted that though Herzog will most likely agree to give Netanyahu more time, he is not limited to the maximum of two weeks and can also choose any lesser period too.

The incoming coalition parties have already shown they are working together in the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s Likud party announced Monday that its bloc of allied parties — which holds a majority of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset — had gathered the 61 signatures needed to force a vote on replacing the parliament speaker even before the next government is sworn in. Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said he will convene the plenum for that vote next Monday, after Netanyahu’s mandate would expire in the absence of an extension.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu seen after coalition talks with Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri and Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The election of a new speaker, from the Netanyahu-led bloc, is an essential prerequisite if the planned right-religious coalition is to take office, since several of Netanyahu’s intended ministerial appointments and commitments to incoming coalition parties require changes to existing legislation, and the speaker exerts considerable control over the Knesset’s legislative agenda.

The controversial legislative blitz would include passing an amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to enable Shas party leader Aryeh Deri to be sworn in as a minister alongside the rest of the incoming government despite having been handed a suspended sentence for tax fraud earlier this year.

The attorney general has said that the Central Elections Committee should determine whether the current, vaguely worded law blocks a person who was given a suspended sentence from becoming a cabinet minister, but Netanyahu is planning to sidestep the issue entirely by changing the law. Deri, who served a prison sentence for bribery earlier in his career, is set to become minister of both health and the interior in the upcoming government, according to coalition agreements.

The planned law changes also reportedly include allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings with a simple 61-strong majority. The override clause, among other concerns, could preempt any legal challenges to Deri’s ministerial appointment. Critics have warned that an override clause would severely disrupt the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar attends a ceremony at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, June 28, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Outgoing Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar earlier Tuesday called on Herzog to turn down any request to extend the mandate for being a “deception,” claiming that Netanyahu had already finished assembling his coalition and was delaying the announcement only in order to first pass a series of “problematic laws” that his allies insist on.

The likelihood of Herzog refusing the request is seen as very slim since there is no other prime-ministerial candidate, and since extensions have been given in the past in order to finalize the coalition agreements, and while the president has discretion in weighing the request, it is limited.

Netanyahu was given 28 days by Herzog on November 13 to form a government, after a majority among the newly elected Knesset members recommended him as prime minister.

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