Bennett looking to squeeze 11th-hour coalition concession from Netanyahu

Jewish Home fighting for Justice Ministry, betting on PM’s desperation one day before government-forming deadline

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Haim Zach/GPO)

With just a day and a half left before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must tell President Reuven Rivlin whether he’s succeeded in forming a coalition, negotiations with the last would-be coalition partner have turned ugly.

Netanyahu has made the Jewish Home party an offer he believes it will be hard for party leader Naftali Bennett to decline: the ministries of education and Diaspora for Bennett, agriculture for Uri Ariel and culture and sports for Ayelet Shaked – three ministers from an eight-seat party – and the posts of deputy defense minister and the chairmanship of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

However, Bennett seems primed to play hardball and leverage his position as the final piece Netanyahu needs to form a government, demanding the Justice Ministry for Shaked apparently in lieu of the Culture and Sports Ministry.

On Monday night, Jewish Home’s leadership held an emergency meeting in which the party voted to give Bennett the authority to seal a coalition deal with Likud.

The move empowers Bennett to resist Likud’s pressure, possibly taking his party into the opposition, but also to sign a coalition deal and enter the 34th government.

Netanyahu’s offer Monday night targeted Bennett and other top Jewish Home lawmakers, but also aimed at the nationalist party’s constituents in West Bank settlements and in the national-religious education system.

Under the terms of the offer, Bennett himself will be a member of the inner security cabinet; Uri Ariel will control the Settlement Division, an agency currently under the Prime Minister’s Office that is responsible for planning and building in West Bank settlements; and the deputy defense minister will control the IDF’s civil administration that administers civilian life in the West Bank.

The nationalist-religious settler movement would effectively gain control of all the institutions that affect its public life. All but one: the state rabbinic institutions under the purview of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which was handed to Shas.

So far, Bennett seems to have weathered any pressure from his own camp and is continuing to aim for the Justice Ministry. The party has set as one of its top goals in the new Knesset the passage of bills that would empower the Knesset to overturn High Court of Justice rulings. That agenda makes the ministry and Knesset Law Committee especially desirable for Bennett.

But Netanyahu has a long history of resisting right-wing efforts at weakening the court, and is likely to fight to keep the Justice Ministry in Likud’s hands. The move could also endanger the already-sealed deal with Shas, as a Jewish Home justice minister would gain a powerful foothold in the committee that appoints religious court judges — a key battleground between the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious camps.

The battle lines are drawn, but time is running out. If Bennett and Netanyahu don’t reach an agreement by Wednesday at midnight, three scenarios are possible: Rivlin may well give Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog a chance to form a left-led coalition; Netanyahu and Herzog could try to put together a unity coalition, an easy prospect mathematically given the parties’ sizes, but a difficult prospect politically; or Rivlin could call new elections, just weeks after the previous ballot.

Likud has not been sparing with its criticism of Bennett over the current crisis.

“The responsibility for [the establishment] of a nationalist government is on Bennett’s shoulders,” Likud coalition negotiator David Shimron said Tuesday. “He got very generous offers.”

Jewish Home has refused to respond to the criticism. Indeed, Bennett has kept almost entirely silent in recent days.

Likud formally signed its agreement with Shas on Monday night, giving the ultra-Orthodox party the Economy Ministry, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, the post of deputy finance minister and the chairmanship of the Knesset Education Committee.

The ruling faction 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 will 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 nascent coalition.

Earlier Monday, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman announced he would sit in the opposition rather that serve in a government that he called “opportunistic” and not “nationalistic.”

“We have come to a unanimous decision that it would not be right for us to join the coalition,” said Liberman, who also said he would resign as foreign minister. “We chose our principles over cabinet seats.”

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 charged that Netanyahu was weak on 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.

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