Netanyahu and Liberman meet for coalition talks as deadline looms

Likud holding negotiations with several parties as it looks to secure government agreement before May 28 cutoff

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With only six days to go before he must present a new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accelerating negotiations with the five parties expected to enter his coalition.

Netanyahu met Wednesday morning at his official residence in Jerusalem with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and was set to meet later in the day with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, according to Hebrew media reports.

The former defense minister is considered to be the toughest potential coalition partner in negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Liberman is standing firm on two main demands to keep his version of pending legislation to conscript ultra-Orthodox into the military and to know in advance what powers he would receive as defense minister.

He said last week that he would stop holding talks until Likud met his demands.

After winning 35 seats in the April 9 general elections, Netanyahu had 28 days to present a new government coalition, and was given a two-week extension on May 13 by President Reuven Rivlin.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) presents Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a two-week extension to form a new government, May 13, 2019. (Haim Zach, GPO)

If there is no government by the May 28 deadline, the ball goes back into the hands of the president, who can either task the leader of another party to form a government, or call for new elections.

Most analysts say Netanyahu will manage to seal a coalition deal in the remaining days, especially with lawmakers rushing through an amendment to allow him to expand the size of his cabinet.

Minister Yariv Levin, who is heading up negotiations for Likud, met with representatives of United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Union of Right-Wing Parties on Wednesday.

Members of the Likud and United Torah Judaism parties hold coalition negotiations, at the Knesset, on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The main disagreement with the right-wing alliance is over the justice portfolio, demanded by URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich, while Netanyahu wants to appoint Levin.

Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading rabbi of the religious Zionist movement, threatened at the beginning of the week that if Smotrich did not receive the justice portfolio, “Netanyahu will not have a government.”

Head of the Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon speaks to party supporters as the results in the Israeli general elections, are announced, at the party headquarters, on April 9, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Kulanu Party head Moshe Kahlon, who is demanding to remain finance minister, made it clear that he would sign a coalition agreement with Netanyahu only after seeing all the other party’s agreements and financial demands, so that he would not be forced to raise taxes in return for entering the government.

Netanyahu, who is reportedly hoping to secure immunity from prosecution from his new coalition, has argued that his potential partners are demanding too much, putting the future of right-wing rule in danger.

“I regret that the parties are still out on a limb,” Netanyahu said Sunday about the coalition talks. “I hope that a way will be found soon to bring them down to reality.”

Taking it down to the wire is nothing new for Netanyahu, a veteran expert in the high-pressure wheeling and dealing of coalition negotiations.

Following the elections four years ago, Netanyahu hammered out a last-minute deal with less than two hours to go before his deadline was set to expire, cobbling together a 61-seat coalition — the narrowest of Knesset majorities, without Yisrael Beytenu.

This time, losing Yisrael Beytenu would mean forming a non-majority government of 60 out of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.

Netanyahu has reportedly considering the possibility of forming a non-majority government without Yisrael Beytenu, an unprecedented move in Israel, but theoretically possible.

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