Likud proposes joint talks with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home

Meetings to form new coalition set to resume Sunday; sides hope to make progress toward new draft law

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, left, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at the opening session of the Knesset in January, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, left, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at the opening session of the Knesset in January, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In what appears to be a concession to the alliance struck between surging political powerhouses Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, Likud officials proposed to hold coalition talks with representatives of both parties at once.

“We told the Jewish Home people that if they are indeed in a close alliance with Yesh Atid, we should sit together in coalition talks too,” a senior Likud official told Maariv. “It’s a waste of time to meet separately with representatives of both the parties. If there is a pact in place and a joint veto on the inclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, we might as well all meet together.”

Talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu and his former aide Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home were scheduled to resume on Sunday, after representatives met on Friday. The negotiations were said to be held “in a good atmosphere” and dealt with aspects of the coalition’s guiding principles.

Representatives of Bennett’s party were reported to have discussed but not demanded the possible revocation of Netanyahu’s agreement with Hatnua chief Tzipi Livni, whereby Livni joins a Likud-led coalition in exchange for the Justice Ministry portfolio and the task of heading peace talks with the Palestinians. Bennett has been an outspoken critic of such negotiations, and his party represents a cross-section of voters who are largely opposed to a two-state solution along pre-1967 lines.

The differences between the two potential coalition partners were sharpened Saturday, when Livni spoke harshly against government plans to build a new settlement in the contested area known as E1.

“We don’t have to make provocations that just poke out the other side’s eye and stir up the world against us,” she said.

Friday’s Likud-Jewish Home coalition talks ended without any specific signs of progress, and the Likud-Beytenu team then met with Shas’s leadership triumvirate of Aryeh Deri, Ariel Atias, and Eli Yishai. Netanyahu’s key challenge is to find a formula for expanding the number of ultra-Orthodox young men entering military service; Jewish Home and Yesh Atid want almost all Haredi men to serve, while Shas and United Torah Judaism want wide-scale exemptions for full-time Torah study.

Three weeks after Shimon Peres charged Netanyahu with forming a coalition, it is this issue that has made the task so complex, and is gradually fueling speculation that Netanyahu may not be able to build a Knesset majority, though his aides remain confident he will do so.

The Likud-Jewish Home talks included discussion of a proposal — put together by Eugene Kandel, the head of Israel’s National Economic Council — according to which the IDF would draft upwards of 60% of ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 18-24 within five years, and the government would provide monetary incentives to those who comply while penalizing the yeshivas of those who don’t. The Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties rejected the Kandel proposal when Netanyahu’s team pitched it in earlier coalition talks. Instead, both parties agreed to set the number of haredim who would be given draft exemptions at 2,000, according to a Channel 10 report.

According to a source within Shas, Friday’s meeting ended without progress and there are still significant gaps between the two sides regarding ultra-Orthodox service.

The Jewish Home party has made it clear that an alliance formed with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, according to which both parties would either join the government together or join the opposition, remains firm. Jewish Home representatives on Friday also said they backed Yesh Atid’s demand that ultra-Orthodox schools teach the full “core curriculum” of subjects, including English and Mathematics, as a condition for state funding.

“The pact with Lapid is iron-clad,” party sources said. “We would rather have new elections than join the government without him.”

To date, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu (31 seats) has drawn only Livni’s Hatnua (6) into the coalition. On Thursday, leaders of Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12) and Kadima (2) held talks at which they resolved not to join the coalition without a commitment from Netanyahu to legislate for the conscription of most ultra-Orthodox young men.

If these parties hold to that position, and Labor (15 seats) remains resolute about going into the opposition, Netanyahu would find it impossible to garner a Knesset majority even with both ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7). His aides remain optimistic that the Yesh Atid-Jewish Home alliance can yet be broken. He has until the beginning of March to form a coalition, but can also ask for a 14-day extension from President Peres.

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