Ministers okay expanding cabinet as Netanyahu bemoans coalition talks impasse

Ministers okay expanding cabinet as Netanyahu bemoans coalition talks impasse

Measure would cancel 2013 law limiting the cabinet to 18 ministers; PM expected to hand out 26-28 portfolios to members of his new government

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on May 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit / various sources / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on May 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit / various sources / AFP)

With time running out to finalize a deal to form a new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained Sunday that his potential coalition partners were unyielding in their demands, obstructing any significant progress in talks.

At the same time, in a bid to appeal to the six parties vying for seats around the government table, ministers on Sunday approved a move to expand the cabinet from its current 21 members to an expected 26-28. The measure would cancel a 2013 law limiting the cabinet to just 18 ministers that was temporarily amended in 2015 during coalition talks after that year’s election.

Having received government approval, the measure will now need to pass three Knesset plenary votes before becoming law, the first of which is expected to take place as early as Monday.

“Unfortunately the parties are still at the top of the trees they have climbed,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

“I hope that the way will soon be found to bring them down to the ground so that together we can establish a strong and stable government for the State of Israel, which will continue to lead the country to new heights,” he said.

Less than two weeks before the final May 28 deadline for Netanyahu to submit a coalition to the Knesset, talks appear to have stalled, and no agreement has been signed with any party. Without reconciling the conflicting demands of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the other factions likely to join, Netanyahu will be unable to assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud member Yariv Levin are seen during a faction meeting at the Knesset on December 9, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Expanding the cabinet would give Netanyahu additional collateral to court the parties he needs to give him a majority.

Abolishing the 18-minister limit would also enable the prime minister to hand out portfolios to satisfy the demands of his own party members, who are likely to miss out on key positions given to coalition partners.

After the 2013 elections, Yesh Atid conditioned joining the government on the passage of a law to drastically cut the number of ministers from the record 30 in the previous government to 18. Following the 2015 elections, however, the first opportunity for the new law to be implemented, Netanyahu passed a temporary amendment expanding it to 21. Now he wants the law scrapped altogether.

Members of the Blue and White party — of which Yesh Atid is now a faction — as well as other parties in the likely opposition railed against Sunday’s decision and vowed to oppose the measure in the Knesset, citing a price tag of up to NIS 200 million ($56 million) for the additional cabinet posts.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is reportedly considering the possibility of forming a non-majority government without the Yisrael Beytenu Party led by Avigdor Liberman.

While the establishment of a minority or non-majority government right after parliamentary elections would be unprecedented in Israel, it is theoretically possible. The new government must receive majority support in the Knesset, but need not obtain the approval of a supermajority of 61 or more.

Likud sources believe that even if Liberman does not join the government, he would not actively vote against it and risk being blamed for forcing new elections, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth. Instead, Yisrael Beytenu’s five MKs could abstain in any confidence votes, leaving the coalition with a simple majority of 60 to 55, while still remaining in the opposition.

Netanyahu’s Likud has previously said that the secularist, hawkish Liberman has demanded more than his fair share of control over ministries and government policies — given his party’s paltry five Knesset seats — including the defense minister post, a more secularist religion-and-state stance, and a more combative posture vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Kulanu party head Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister in the outgoing government — in which he controlled 10 Knesset seats — is now seeking to hold on to the job despite his party shrinking to just four seats, and has refused to conclude his coalition talks with Likud.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, speaks with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, November 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kahlon has told confidants that he will not agree to be the finance minister in a government of just 60 MKs as it will be too weak and the treasury would face unrealistic demands from each party in the coalition, Haaretz reported Thursday. Kahlon also repeated his stipulation that he will only sign a coalition agreement after he has seen the financial demands of all the other member parties.

A key sticking point in coalition talks is Liberman’s demand that no changes be made to a bill regulating the draft of ultra-Orthodox men into the army. The bill, which passed a first reading in the Knesset during the previous parliament, is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties that want to make alterations in the legislation to reduce the quotas of those who would be called up for national service.

In the coalition talks, Liberman laid out five core demands he said were his party’s red lines, including the defeat of Hamas, blocking any changes to proposed legislation regulating military conscription for ultra-Orthodox men, and ending certain despised practices employed by some in the state rabbinate when dealing with Russian-speaking immigrants, such as DNA tests to examine Jewish family ties.

If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition by May 28, the task could be assigned to a different member of the Knesset. If no member of the legislature is likely to be able to form a government, the country could then face new elections.

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