Bennett ups his demands, as PM’s coalition-building goes to the wire
Netanyahu: '61 is a good number; 61-plus is a better number'

Bennett ups his demands, as PM’s coalition-building goes to the wire

With barely 24 hours before Netanyahu must tell the president he has a government, Jewish Home party asks for Justice Ministry

MK Ayelet Shaked (left), seen with Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett during a party meeting at the Knesset. (photo credit: Flash90)
MK Ayelet Shaked (left), seen with Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett during a party meeting at the Knesset. (photo credit: Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett were engaged in a game of chicken Tuesday night, with Bennett demanding a more prominent role for his party in the next coalition, and Netanyahu knowing that he has to tell the president by 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday that he has formed a majority government.

Bennett was said to be demanding the job of foreign minister or defense minister, and the post of justice minister for colleague Ayelet Shaked, with Uri Ariel also getting a substantive ministerial post. Reports throughout Tuesday said Bennett had “put his cellphone on Airplane Mode,” and was not budging from his demands, while Likud sources said Netanyahu was reluctant to concede to them.

Likud sources told Channel 2 that “the right will never forgive” Bennett if he dooms Netanyahu’s coalition-building, and rejected the Justice Ministry demand for Shaked. But with time running out and no other options, it seemed the prime minister had little choice but to find common ground with Bennett’s Orthodox-nationalist party.

Under election law, Netanyahu must tell President Reuven Rivlin before midnight on Wednesday that he has managed to form a coalition, but he has until next Wednesday to actually get it sworn in by the Knesset, which allows for some wiggle room beyond the ostensible Wednesday-night deadline.

Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 seats in the elections six weeks ago, and he has signed up United Torah Judaism (6 seats), Kulana (10 seats) and Shas (7 seats) for a total of 53. Jewish Home’s 8 seats would give him the narrowest of majorities: 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

Shas leader Aryeh Deri on Tuesday urged Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor-dominated Zionist Union, to join the coalition, and enable “a socioeconomic government,” but Herzog has insisted he will lead a spirited opposition.

Likud’s own Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein, on Tuesday conceded that a 61-strong coalition would present “a string of problems,” but acknowledged there may be no choice, and said Netanyahu could make “every effort” later on to add more partners.

Netanyahu himself said: “61 is a good number; 61-plus is a better number.”

Netanyahu’s calculations were drastically changed when Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Monday that he was resigning and that his six-seat-strong Yisrael Beytenu party would sit in the opposition.

Netanyahu then made the Jewish Home party an offer he believed it would be hard for Bennett to decline: the ministries of education and diaspora affairs for Bennett; agriculture for Ariel; and culture and sports for Shaked — plus the posts of deputy defense minister and the chairmanship of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

But Bennett seemed primed to play hardball.

Netanyahu’s offer Monday night was 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 would be a member of the inner security cabinet; Ariel would 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 would control the Israel Defense Forces’ civil administration that administers civilian life in the West Bank.

The nationalist-religious settler movement would thus 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.

But Bennett is continuing to aim for the Justice Ministry for Shaked. 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 the Knesset Law Committee especially desirable for Bennett.

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 hands.

If Bennett and Netanyahu don’t reach an agreement before 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.

The 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.

Earlier Monday, 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,” announced 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 those made by Liberman over the summer, which 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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