Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud minister whose new Kulanu party won 10 seats in Tuesday’s elections, is to endorse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for another term in office when he meets next week with President Reuven Rivlin to discuss who should head the next coalition, Channel 2 news reported Friday.
In a Facebook post Friday, Kahlon seemed to signal that Netanyahu was the only realistic choice for prime minister, writing: “The results of the elections are clear to everyone.” Netanyahu’s Likud soared to 30 seats in the Knesset, leaving the prime minister as the only realistic candidate to head the next government, while its main rival, the Zionist Union, mustered only 24 seats.
Still, Kahlon added in his Facebook post that “none of us was born in the government, and none of us has to be there.” The former Likud communications minister has demanded the post of finance minister in the new government, but is also said to seek other positions of influence for party allies, including the chair of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee and responsibility for aspects of housing and construction. His key goal, he said in returning to politics ahead of the March 17 elections, was to reduce the cost of living in Israel and bring down soaring housing prices.
President Rivlin, who is widely believed to have favored a “unity government,” pairing both Netanyahu’s Likud and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, would seem to have little leeway in formally charging Netanyahu with the task of forming the new government.
He is required to meet with senior members from the 10 parties that won seats in the Knesset, hear their recommendations, and then charge the politician he deems has the best chance of building a government with the task of doing so.
Zionist Union and the centrist Yesh Atid (11 seats) have both made clear that they intend to sit in the opposition, along with the left-wing Meretz (five seats) and the Joint (Arab) List (13 seats).
Netanyahu thus intends to form a six-party right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition, comprising Likud (30 seats), Kulanu (10 seats), Jewish Home (8 seats), Shas (7 seats) Yisrael Beytenu (6 seats) and United Torah Judaism (6 seats), giving him 67 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Rivlin’s discussions will begin on Sunday and continue until Monday. On Sunday representatives of Likud will meet Rivlin first. They will be followed by representatives of Zionist Union, the Joint (Arab) List, Jewish Home, Shas and finally United Torah Judaism. On Monday, representatives of Yesh Atid will be first to meet Rivlin, followed by Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz.
“It is the president’s intention to open the round of consultations already at the beginning of next week,” his office said on Wednesday, “in an effort to conclude the process of establishing the new government as early as possible – in order to ensure the citizens of Israel have the assurance of a fully functioning government, in the face of the present challenges which lie before the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s key challenge will be to reconcile demands from his own Likud colleagues and his potential coalition allies for the limited number of key jobs. He is seen likely to try to keep the number of ministers down to about 22 — the same as the outgoing government.
With Kahlon heading for finance, there is fierce competition for the two other top ministerial positions: defense and foreign affairs. Likud sources insist Moshe Ya’alon will stay on as defense minister, despite demands for the job from Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman.
Yuval Steinitz, the outgoing (Likud) minister of strategic affairs, said Friday that the top jobs “should go to the loyalists” from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, but acknowledged that “what ought to happen doesn’t always happen” in Israeli politics.
Competition for prominent jobs is likely to make the process of building a coalition relatively arduous. But ultimately, all the parties involved know there is no realistic prospect of an alternative coalition constellation, and that the public would not easily forgive them if they failed to reach agreement and, in an extreme scenario, plunged Israel back into another election process.
In his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Netanyahu promised to form a new government “without delay,” and said he had already been in touch with the leaders of the “national camp” parties he sought for his coalition. Further complicating his task, however, is the fact that, in an appeal for Likud votes in the final days of the campaign, he told right-wing voters to abandon those other parties and vote for him.
Now the leaders of these parties are to negotiate with him over their roles in government. Jewish Home fell from 12 seats to eight in these elections, and blames Netanyahu for that collapse in support. “We carried the stretcher” to ensure Netanyahu’s victory, Bennett said wryly after the results were announced.
Bennett, Liberman and Kahlon have all worked for Netanyahu in one capacity or other, and broke away to form their own parties, underlining their bumpy relations with him. Liberman and Bennett both criticized Netanyahu’s handling of last summer’s war against Hamas, and Liberman also severed an alliance between his Yisrael Beytenu and Likud last year. Officials in Liberman’s party said Friday that they would decide on Sunday who to recommend to Rivlin as prime minister.