Netanyahu aims to present coalition to Peres next Wednesday

Jewish Home and Yesh Atid said to be close to finalizing terms with Likud-Beytenu, as Yair Lapid gives up on the Foreign Ministry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aims to present his coalition to Shimon Peres when the president returns next Wednesday from his current trip to Europe, and to have it sworn in at the Knesset on Wednesday or Thursday, media reports said Thursday night.

Netanyahu met Thursday with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who may become the finance minister in the new coalition, and was set to meet later Thursday with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has sought the post of foreign minister but may be ready to take another portfolio instead, Israeli TV reports said. Both parties indicated that most obstacles to their joining the Likud-Beytenu-led coalition were now being cleared.

The new cabinet was expected to number 23 or 24 ministers — five or six fewer than Netanyahu wanted, and five or six more than Lapid had sought.

According to reports in Army Radio and Channel 2, Lapid withdrew his demand to assume the Foreign Ministry post, but it was not clear what alternative job was being offered.

Netanyahu has insisted on reserving the Foreign Ministry for Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who stepped down from the post late last year to fight fraud charges. Lapid was offered the Finance Ministry but refused it, reports said.

Yesh Atid and Jewish Home joined forces in coalition talks, each vowing to not enter without the other.

A Jewish Home source told The Times of Israel that Likud-Beytenu had agreed that any peace agreement with the Palestinians would have to be affirmed by a popular referendum; and Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech setting out a conditional vision for a Palestinian state would not be mentioned in the official government outline.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said that the basis for his policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians would be his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, during which he in principle agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state, if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state.

Coalition talks have taken longer than expected as Yesh Atid and Jewish Home joined ranks, successfully blocking ultra-Orthodox parties from entering the government and pushing for a number of religion and state reforms, including a universal draft applying to ultra-Orthodox young males and new education standards in religious schools.

The emerging agreement on ultra-Orthodox service will see more than 400 young males excluded from service each year — the “quota” sought by Yesh Atid — but would involve a dramatic rise in the number going into service, Israel’s Channel 10 said.

Netanyahu has until March 16 to form a government after Peres gave him a 14-day extension last Saturday. Should he fail to cobble together a coalition, Peres could ask another politician to form a government or call new elections.

Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, with six seats, is the only party to have signed with Likud-Beytenu and its 31 seats. Livni was reportedly promised the Justice Ministry portfolio.

Sixty-one seats are preferred for a governing coalition in the 120-seat Knesset. Bringing in Yesh Atid and Jewish Home would give Netanyahu 68 seats.

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