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Herzog to begin formal consultations on who should form new coalition

President will meet first with far-right factions according to schedule that starts with smallest parties and works up to the largest; Gantz and Liberman won’t recommend Lapid

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

President Isaac Herzog hosts a ceremony at the president's house in Jerusalem, September 20, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog hosts a ceremony at the president's house in Jerusalem, September 20, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog was to begin meetings with members of all the factions in the next Knesset on Wednesday as part of formal consultations on who should assemble the next government.

Talks will be held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem and will be broadcast live. Each faction recommends to the president which party leader they want to form the government.

Opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc, which includes the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties along with the far-right Religious Zionism party, received 64 seats in last week’s election — enough for a majority in the 120-member Knesset — and is expected to form the new government.

The president was set to speak separately with representatives from the far-right Religious Zionism alliance’s three constituent parties.

Religious Zionism won 14 seats, the third most of any electoral slate, but the meetings with the president will be scheduled in accordance with each sub-faction’s size. The party is made up of Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, who won seven and six seats respectively, and the extreme right anti-LGBT Naom faction, which secured one seat.

Among current Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s center-left bloc of parties, Labor leader Meirav Michaeli is expected to recommend him for premier. However, National Union leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman will both refrain from recommending any candidate as prime minister, according to Hebrew media reports.

Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al, the two Arab parties in the Knesset, are likewise not expected to back any candidate.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich arrives for coalition talks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid jostling among Netanyahu’s prospective coalition partners, Religious Zionism leader MK Bezalel Smotrich met with Shas chief Aryeh Deri on Tuesday to haggle over the position of finance minister, Channel 13 reported. Smotrich reportedly said he is prepared to give up on the finance ministry if Deri wants it, but that he will demand the defense ministry instead.

According to the report, Netanyahu wants to give Deri the treasury, however, the latter is wary of taking up the post as it will require occasionally turning down requests from the very segments of society whose rights and demands he championed in the past.

Previous media reports have said the role of defense minister is more likely to go to Likud MK Yoav Gallant, a former top general in the Israeli military.

Netanyahu spoke Tuesday with Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David who a day earlier reportedly raised the alarm with Likud officials over the prospect of Smotrich becoming finance minister as being a “red flag” amid fears he would take a harsher attitude towards workers committees, Channel 12 reported.

During the call, which was aimed at calming Bar-David’s fears, Smotrich’s name was not mentioned but Netanyahu assured the union chairman that he would not allow any harm to the worker committees.

Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu (center) speaks with Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich (second from left) during informal coalition talks in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

In other coalition negotiations, ultra-Orthodox parties and Smotrich are demanding changes to restrict Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic immigration rights to anyone of Jewish descent, Channel 13 reported.

The religious parties want to cancel a clause that allows even those who only have one Jewish grandparent to obtain citizenship.

Many of those who fall into that category are not considered Jewish under Halacha, the set of religious rules and regulations followed by Orthodox Jews, which is the reason behind the demand to change the stipulation. A Likud party source told the station dropping the clause could provoke outrage in the US Jewish community as well as communities in countries of the former Soviet Union.

Netanyahu, aware of the potential backlash to such a move, does not want to discuss the matter until after the government is established and would then likely find a way to have it dropped from the agenda, the station assessed.

Overshadowing the jostling for positions is a divide between prospective coalition members over demands to pass legislation that would enable the Knesset to still pass laws even if they are struck down by the High Court.

The United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism parties both want to speedily pass the so-called Override Clause — with UTJ saying it won’t even join the government until it has a commitment from Likud to pass the bill. Deri, however, is reportedly aligned with Netanyahu’s approach that first a government be established with ministerial positions allocated, and only afterwards its guiding policies be negotiated by coalition members.

Channel 13 said Netanyahu is still deliberating about which path to choose for the override bill, though other media has previously said that he likewise wants to put it on a back burner for the time being.

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

UTJ will reportedly arrive at negotiations with Likud on Wednesday with additional demands including matters relating to the exemption from army draft for the ultra-Orthodox community, and to cement control over conversations to Judaism solely with the Chief Rabbinate which is dominated by ultra-Orthodox officials.

UJT sources told Haaretz that the party will likely agree to Netanyahu’s approach of not forming a detailed coalition pact before establishing the government, but would insist on a commitment to a list of ten demands relating to religion and state, and the override clause.

The report cited sources in UJT as saying the party sees the need to quickly establish a new government fearing Lapid could still pull some moves as long as he is in office. A source said that if Netanyahu does not agree to the UTJ proposal then the party will vote against the state budget that will be placed before the Knesset in the coming months. However, another UTJ source predicted a detailed coalition agreement will be signed before the budget vote.

Though parties have already held informal talks with Likud and Netanyahu, official coalition talks with Likud’s top negotiator Yariv Levin will begin on Wednesday, Haaretz reported.

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