Coalition talks

Lapid, Netanyahu meeting yields ‘significant progress’

Yesh Atid leader said set to get Finance Ministry portfolio; Jewish Home leader says deal nearly reached between parties

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, at the opening session of the Knesset, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, at the opening session of the Knesset, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After reports this week that coalition negotiations would likely come to fruition over the weekend, a Friday morning meeting between Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly yielded significant progress towards an agreement.

In talks at the Prime Minister’s Residence, the two discussed Yesh Atid’s inclusion in the government coalition, and Yesh Atid and Likud-Beytenu spokespeople both said the meeting made significant progress toward an agreement between the Knesset’s two largest parties.

The two parties reportedly agreed that Lapid would take the reins of the Finance Ministry, and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett would run the Ministry of Industry and Trade, according to Channel 10.

The Foreign Ministry, on which Lapid was said to have his sights, will be reserved for Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, should be emerge from his legal battles unscathed, it reported. Liberman has indicated that if his trial ends in anything but an acquittal, he will retire from politics.

The station also reported that Moshe Ya’alon would replace outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israeli website News1 said Yesh Atid would also receive at least four other ministerial positions, including the Education Ministry, which MK Rabbi Shai Piron would likely head.

The coalition negotiation teams are scheduled to reconvene Saturday night, and a government could be announced as soon as Wednesday, Israel Radio reported.

Earlier on Friday, Bennett likened the talks to a birth, and, while indicating that a coalition with both his and Lapid’s parties was all but inevitable, cautioned that a deal with Netanyahu hadn’t quite crowned.

“If establishing the government was like a labor process, we’d be two fingers dilated, and the doctor would be optimistic,” Bennett tweeted.

Meanwhile, Yesh Atid dismissed leaks from Likud sources to the effect that Lapid had been offered, and turned down, the post of finance minister.

“I spoke to Yair Lapid yesterday, and he told me that no one had offered him that portfolio, so he couldn’t have turned it down,” MK Yael German of Yesh Atid told Army Radio. “He heard about the proposal over the airwaves.”

Recent assessments say Bennett is set to become finance minister, a largely thankless position that will likely be especially unpopular in the coming term due to the government’s need to patch up a budgetary deficit of some NIS 40 billion ($11 billion).

German’s statement is consistent with Yesh Atid’s categorical denial of reports that Lapid’s insistence on the Foreign Ministry was the main sticking point in talks with the Likud. Leaks to that effect from sources close to Netanyahu were nothing but “spin,” the centrist party has maintained.

Channel 2 News on Friday morning cited sources in the political system in reporting that Lapid would in fact serve as interior minister in the next cabinet, a post — currently held by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party’s leader, Eli Yishai — which would allow Yesh Atid to promote its much-touted liberal agenda on conversion to Judaism and the right to marry in Israel.

Netanyahu, who has until next Saturday to form a coalition, will likely aim to present an agreement to President Shimon Peres upon Peres’s return next Wednesday from a sojourn in Europe.

If Netanyahu fails to present a new government in time — he is already in the midst of a 14-day extension granted him by Peres on March 2 after his first 28 days of efforts proved futile — the president will either tap another politician as presumptive prime minister, or call another round of elections. Netanyahu, who, recent surveys indicate, may lose to Lapid if Israelis head back to the polls, is said to be aiming for a Wednesday or Thursday swearing-in ceremony for his new government.

Netanyahu’s cabinet is expected to number 23-24 ministers, five or six fewer than he wanted, and five or six more than Lapid had sought in an effort to slim down what he’s termed Israel’s “bloated” executive branch.

According to Israel Radio, the cabinet posts would be filled by eight ministers from Likud, six from Yesh Atid, four from Jewish Home, three from Yisrael Beytenu, two from Hatnua, and one from Kadima.

More than the question of the number of ministers, the chief issues to draw out coalition negotiations were Yesh Atid and Jewish Home’s push for a universal conscription law that would extend to young ultra-Orthodox males and the application of new education standards in religious schools. The two parties’ united front on these topics prompted the ultra-Orthodox parties, traditionally allies of Netanyahu, to stay out of the government and launch an acerbic public relations campaign against Bennett and the Jewish Home party.

The emerging deal on ultra-Orthodox service will see more than 400 young males excluded from service each year — the quota sought by Yesh Atid — but still with a dramatic rise in the number of men going into the military.

Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, with six seats, is the only party to date to have signed with Likud-Beytenu and its 31. In addition to the position of justice minister, Livni was promised the right to lead peace talks with the Palestinians, an offer that Bennett and Lapid have sought to have withdrawn or amended if they are to join the government.

Elie Leshem contributed to this report. 

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