Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett was expected to demand the foreign portfolio after incumbent Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman announced on Monday that he was resigning and would not join a new governing coalition with the ruling Likud party.
Jewish Home held an emergency meeting Monday night, hours after the Likud signed a deal with the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and following Liberman’s dramatic announcement, which threw a wrench in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to form a government before a looming deadline Thursday.
According to the coalition deal with Shas, the party was set to control the Economy Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry, a move strongly opposed by Jewish Home as well as Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
At the Jewish Home meeting late Monday, Bennett himself was charged with leading further negotiations for a coalition agreement with the Likud, according to Israel Radio.
Jewish-Home director-general Nir Orbach said the party was demanding an important, influential ministry — likely the Foreign Ministry, which Jewish Home had wanted but was promised to Liberman — in addition to the education portfolio (set for Bennett himself) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Likud sources told Israel Radio that the party had already made an “unprecedented” offer to Jewish Home, which includes the education, agriculture, sports and diaspora affairs ministries, as well as a deputy defense minister appointment for a party member and the chairmanship of the influential Constitution, Law and Justice Knesset Committee.
Under the deal with Shas Monday, the party will also control the Negev and the Galilee development ministry, and Shas MKs will be appointed deputy finance minister, the chairman of the education committee, and deputy Knesset speaker.
The Likud signed coalition deals with Kulanu and United Torah Judaism last week.
With the addition of Shas’s seven seats, Netanyahu now has 53 seats in his coalition. The expected addition of the eight-MK Jewish Home party would give him the 61 mandates needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, albeit a razor-thin one.
Upon signing the deal, Shas leader Aryeh Deri urged Netanyahu to expand the coalition beyond the unstable 61 MKs, and appealed to the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog to join the coalition.
Earlier Monday, Liberman said that he chose to be in the opposition rather that serve in a government that he called opportunist, conformist and not “nationalistic.”
“We have come to a unanimous decision that it would not be right for us to join the coalition,” Liberman said during a press conference in the Knesset in which he announced his decision. “We chose our principles over cabinet seats.”
The announcement puts Netanyahu in a corner as he attempts to cobble together a government before the May 7 deadline. Yisrael Beytenu’s six seats were thought key to bolstering Netanyahu’s nascent government, which may now have to rule with a 61-seat majority.
Liberman said that the prime minister’s Likud party made concessions in coalition agreements with other parties that Yisrael Beytenu could not accept.
“The Jewish-state Bill was so important in the last Knesset – suddenly no one is talking about it,” he said, referring to the controversial legislation proposed last year that would enshrine Israel as a Jewish state.
Liberman further criticized Netanyahu for his weak stance toward terrorism, and charged that the future government “had no intention of uprooting Hamas in Gaza.”
The comments echoed ones made by Liberman over the summer that exposed a rift between him and Netanyahu. The two ran together under a joint list in the 2013 election.
Liberman also lamented that the future government would likely not permit the building of new homes in the major settlement blocs.
In recent weeks, Liberman has criticized Netanyahu’s concessions to ultra-Orthodox parties on the issues of conversion and recruitment to the IDF. Under the deal with UTJ, several major reforms drafted by the previous government, aimed at integrating the ultra-Orthodox community into Israeli society, will be frozen, including aspects of legislation to phase Haredim into mandatory military or national service. Reforms easing conversion processes will also be rolled back.
Both issues are important to the electorate of Yisrael Beytenu, which is largely composed of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.