Netanyahu, Liberman meet in bid to solve coalition impasse

Yisrael Beytenu says its leader and PM discussed ‘preservation of the status quo on issues of religion and state’; but party’s demands still at odds with ultra-Orthodox

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Avigdor Liberman (left), and Benjamin Netanyahu sharing a private word in January 2013. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman (left), and Benjamin Netanyahu sharing a private word in January 2013. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman met Wednesday afternoon with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to find a way out of a looming impasse with the ultra-Orthodox parties, a day after vowing that his secularist faction would not join a “coalition of religious coercion.”

A statement released by Yisrael Beytenu after the meeting said it had been conducted “in good spirits” and that it “centered around the formulation of an agreed-upon security policy and the preservation of the status quo on issues of religion and state.”

Those were two of the key issues that Liberman on Tuesday said would determine whether he joins the coalition, as he did immediately after the 2015 election, or opt instead to sit out to keep his party out of the government.

Without Yisrael Beytenu’s five seats, Netanyahu would only have the possible support of 60 MKs out of the Knesset’s 120, making it nearly impossible to rule.

According to Channel 12 news, Likud negotiator Natan Eshel was exploring the possibility of trying to convince a lawmaker from another party to break away and join the future coalition.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Liberman told his Yisrael Beytenu MKs that that one of his key conditions for joining the coalition would be “creating an agreed-upon security policy.” But he admitted that his party’s position on religion and state issues presented a bigger obstacle.

“We support and want a Jewish state but we oppose and will not accept religious coercion,” he said, railing against demands made by the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties for control over various religion and state issues. “We will not join a coalition of religious coercion.”

One of the thorniest issue is legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students, which the secularist Liberman is insisting should be passed without amendment, while ultra-Orthodox parties have said they will not join the coalition if it is advanced without changes. Both Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox are essential for Netanyahu if he is to assemble a governing coalition with a majority of Knesset seats.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, telling lawmakers they must pass new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. In 2018, the court granted the government another month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January, but the Knesset was then dissolved and elections set for April 9.

Hundreds of Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on April 10, 2014, following the arrest of a haredi draft-dodger and against a bill intended to enforce the haredi enlistment into the IDF (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier this month, the leader of ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party insisted that he would not join Netanyahu’s new government if the proposed legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army isn’t changed, heralding tough coalition-building negotiations for the premier.

Yaakov Litzman, the current deputy health minister, said all his party’s demands were coordinated with fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas. UTJ and Shas have eight Knesset seats each.

Coalition talks were mostly on hold during the Passover holiday last week. Netanyahu technically has 28 days to form a coalition, giving him until mid-May, and he may ask President Reuven Rivlin for a two-week extension.

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