Likud and Yesh Atid battling over education portfolio

Sides hash out last details as coalition deal looms

Seventy-seat government looks to be sworn in mid-week after Yesh Atid and Jewish Home near agreement with Likud

Likud-Beytenu, Jewish Home, and Yesh Atid party representatives met Saturday night and into Sunday morning, hoping to iron out the final details of a coalition agreement that could result in the formation of a new government as early as Tuesday.

The sides met late Saturday night and reportedly came together on  issues surrounding the assignment of ministerial portfolios, the particulars of a universal draft bill, and an understanding about the baseline policies of the new governing coalition.

An agreement is expected to be put before the Knesset by Monday and a new government formed by Tuesday, Israel Radio cited political sources as saying. The official swearing-in would take place on Wednesday, with the return of President Shimon Peres from Europe.

While the new government will likely number 25 ministers, including Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid as finance minister, the sides are still battling over which party will hold the education portfolio, Maariv reported.

Shas party leader Eli Yishai wrote on Facebook Saturday night that a coalition agreement without his ultra-Orthodox party was a fait accompli, and that his party’s exclusion from the government was a bitter moment for the state of Israel.

“The 2013 elections will be remembered as the day in which the entire public shunned the traditional and ultra-Orthodox Jews because of their beliefs and views,” Yishai wrote. “Kind words cannot sweeten the conflict and the deep rift that was created during the present period, but it will be remembered for many years to come.”

“With raised heads and with pride we will go to the opposition,” he said.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich told party members in an email this weekend that Netanyahu would have preferred Labor and the religious parties in the government, but that he was completely unwilling to change his policies to accommodate Labor.

“The opposition is an acceptable place,” she said. “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu prefers a coalition with Labor and not with [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett and [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid, but at no point did he express an iota of willingness to change policy so it would partly match that of the Labor Party.”

Netanyahu made considerable progress toward building what is set to be a 70-member-strong coalition, sources close to the negotiations said Friday evening. They stressed, however, that the key deals had yet to be signed, and nothing would be concrete until they were.

The coalition will likely comprise Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2). Labor would lead the opposition, in which the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would also sit, the sources said.

The sources added that Lapid, who had hoped to become foreign minister, will instead serve as finance minister. The Foreign Ministry post will be kept open for former FM Avigdor Liberman, who resigned in December to fight corruption charges and hopes to return quickly to the post after clearing his name.

Bennett looks set to hold the Labor, Trade and Industry Ministry post, with expanded authority.

The defense minister will likely be former IDF chief of the General Staff Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), Housing could well go to Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, while the same party’s Eli Ben Dahan could take Religious Affairs, and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz could become minister of welfare. Many ministerial positions have yet to be finalized, the sources said.

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

However, other Israeli media sources report that Likud is intent on holding the ministry and keeping Gideon Sa’ar as the nation’s top educator.

The emerging compromise on ultra-Orthodox military service will see 1,500-2,000 scholars exempted from service each year — a far higher number than the 400 cap Yesh Atid had sought. Ultra-Orthodox men will be called for service at age 22, not 18, in another reported compromise.

A Friday morning meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence between Lapid and Netanyahu yielded significant progress, both sides said.

Also 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.

Elie Leshem contributed to this report. 

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