With hours to go before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must finalize his new coalition, reports Wednesday morning indicated the Likud party had agreed to a demand from the holdout Jewish Home faction to hand it control of the Justice Ministry.
According to Hebrew-language media reports Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu had agreed to give the Justice Ministry to Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, ending the coalition stand-off and giving Netanyahu the final piece he needs for his government.
Netanyahu has been scrambling to bring Jewish Home and its eight seats aboard before a midnight Wednesday deadline for him to declare a governing coalition.
However, the nationalist faction upped its demands over the past days, insisting that Shaked be given the Justice Ministry and party leader Naftali Bennett be given a top portfolio — possibly the Foreign Ministry.
“We are tending toward granting Jewish Home’s demand for the justice portfolio,” a senior Likud official told Haaretz earlier on Wednesday. “Bennett extorted it from us, and in this case it looks like that act of extortion will work for him. But every act of extortion has its price, and Bennett will pay dearly for it in the future.”
If he succeeds in signing Jewish Home up for his coalition, Netanyahu will have the pieces in place for a razor-thin 61-seat backing in the 120-seat Knesset, enough to maintain power but not enough to do much else, analysts say.
Likud had been loath to give Jewish Home the Justice Ministry, fearing it will use the position to push through controversial reforms weakening the Supreme Court and changing the makeup of the panel that chooses new justices.
Likud officials told Haaretz that there were two problems with giving the Justice Ministry to Jewish Home.
“The first is that the justice minister will soon have to decide on who the next attorney general will be,” one official said. “It’s a very sensitive position, and Netanyahu has no desire to entrust that task to Bennett or Shaked. The second problem is that Shaked is spearheading the battle to change the face of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu has so far avoided going head to head with the court, and he may well not want this headache.”
There has also been a possibility that under the terms of the emerging agreement, Bennett may become foreign minister, replacing Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, who on Monday announced his resignation and his party’s refusal to join the coalition. If Bennett becomes foreign minister, it is likely that Likud will keep the Justice Ministry.
Jewish Home is also reportedly seeking an additional representative in the security cabinet and a clause in the coalition agreement promising that Zionist Union will not be brought into the coalition.
Liberman’s departure Monday left Netanyahu six seats shy of being able to form a ruling coalition, and set off a horse race among politicians over who will succeed him as the country’s top diplomat.
If Bennett and Netanyahu don’t reach an agreement before Wednesday at midnight, three scenarios are possible: Rivlin may 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.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.