Yesh Atid deal hinges on PM’s approach to Haredi conscription

Netanyahu and Lapid hold second meeting on coalition terms; Yesh Atid sources: PM has to decide whether he’s serious about bringing ultra-Orthodox into army

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a second meeting with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Thursday, seeking common ground that would bring Lapid’s party into the coalition.

The two party leaders met for over two hours in what was described as being “a very good atmosphere” at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. No details of what the two discussed were released, but Netanyahu and Lapid agreed to meet again in the near future.

Sources in Yesh Atid said Thursday Lapid was genuinely prepared to stay out of the coalition if it became clear to him that Netanyahu was not intent on passing legislation to ensure a gradual process of conscription and national service for the ultra-Orthodox community. Lapid had emphatically recommended Netanyahu as prime minister in the formal consultations with President Shimon Peres after the elections, the sources said, and crushed the notion of trying to form an anti-Netanyahu bloc in parliament. But Netanyahu, the sources said, now had to make a decision about the nature and thus the direction of his government, and Yesh Atid would determine its role based on that decision.

The sources stressed that the issue of ultra-Orthodox service was one of the key imperatives for Yesh Atid, and that there would no point for the party to sit in a government that did not pursue it. They said Lapid’s proposal — under which anyone in the ultra-Orthodox community could enter the workforce over the next five years, during which the framework for the ultra-Orthodox entry into military or other national service would be finalized and gradually introduced — was not intended as a basis for negotiation. It was, rather, itself a compromise that would swiftly ease the economic plight of the ultra-Orthodox community while sensitively enabling their gradual introduction to national service.

The sources said the issue of which ministerial positions Yesh Atid might hold was not central to the party’s concerns, and that the Knesset faction had not even formally discussed that matter.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians have been bitterly critical of the proposal and of Lapid’s party in general, and have lately ratcheted up criticism of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, too, for allying with Yesh Atid in stressing the imperative for ultra-Orthodox service.

Shas’s Yom LeYom newspaper ran an editorial on Thursday which said there was “something Reform-ish, something gentile” about Bennett’s Jewish Home party and that it was not, in fact, “part of the Jewish home.” Shas leaders later disassociated themselves from the editorial.

Lapid on Wednesday released a statement saying he saw Torah study as “part of the existential fabric of Israel” and praised those who devoted themselves to it full-time. But that was no excuse for not teaching English and mathematics to young children in the ultra-Orthodox community, he wrote, or “for 18-year-olds not serving their country, or for 28-year-olds not entering the workforce.”

Netanyahu had held long, informal coalition talks with Lapid on January 24, just two days after the election in what was his first meeting with a potential coalition party leader.

Since then, however, Lapid, whose party won 19 seats in the elections, muddied the waters when he told a TV interviewer that he expected to win the prime ministership in the next elections, and was reported to have said he might go into opposition this time and emerge in 18 months to unseat Netanyahu.

Those comments brought a bitter response on Tuesday from Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, who said Lapid was obsessed “with being prime minister” before he had even started work as a politician. But Netanyahu was publicly unfazed, shaking hands warmly with Lapid at Tuesday’s Knesset swearing-in ceremony.

Likud sources said Wednesday that Netanyahu, especially after having been rebuffed on Wednesday by Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich, strongly wanted Lapid in his government, and would remind him that energizing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and legislating for ultra-Orthodox military service would not be possible without a strong centrist element in the coalition.

Trying to pressure Lapid and Bennett’s Jewish Home party, Likud sources were quoted by Channel 10 as saying Wednesday night that Netanyahu might try to build a coalition without either of them, heavily dependent on the ultra-Orthodox parties, but that scenario seems arithmetically hard to envision given Yachimovich’s determination to stay in the opposition.

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