Netanyahu said to ask Shas to ease stance on religious issues in coalition talks

Reported request of ultra-Orthodox party apparently aimed at paving way for Liberman to join right-wing government led by incumbent PM

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the six-year anniversary of death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the six-year anniversary of death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly asked the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to show more flexibility on issues of religion and state to potentially open the door for the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party to join a government of right-wing and religious factions.

This was the first time Netanyahu made such a request of his ultra-Orthodox allies, Channel 12 news reported Saturday.

The TV channel did not say how Shas chief Aryeh Deri responded, nor whether Netanyahu made a similar request of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Shas and UTJ, along with two national-religious factions and Netanyahu’s Likud party, are part of 55-MK bloc formed after the September 17 elections. The parties have agreed to act as one in coalition talks and only enter a government together.

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 28, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu was previously a linchpin in Netanyahu-led governments that included the ultra-Orthodox. After elections in April, however, he refused to join the premier’s prospective coalition unless a bill to boost military enlistment of seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by UTJ and Shas.

Without Yisrael Beytenu’s seats, Netanyahu was one seat short of a governing majority and rather than having another lawmaker get a crack at forming a government, he pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call elections for September. That vote resulted in continued political gridlock.

President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz with attempting to form a coalition after Netanyahu failed, but his chances of doing so are seen as just as slim.

Liberman denied earlier this week that he was readying to soften his stance on religion and state and other demands in coalition talks.

On Saturday, he said in a Channel 12 interview that Netanyahu should part with his “ultra-Orthodox, messianic bloc” and that Gantz should compromise as well in efforts to form a broad unity government.

Liberman has routinely called for such a government since the elections, but the Likud has so far refused to negotiate outside of the bloc of 55

In one of his more dramatic announcements, Liberman warned that should Gantz and Netanyahu not accept tough compromises in order to form a coalition together, he will back the other candidate and give up on his pledge to only support a national unity government.

“Gantz must accept the president’s plan, including a leave of absence, and Netanyahu should say goodbye to his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc,” Liberman told Channel 12 news. “I expect both people to make the right decisions. I intend to appeal to both of them and request a meeting this week. Whoever makes the wrong decision — we in Yisrael Beytenu will draw the conclusions. Whoever makes the wrong decision — we will support the other side.”

The president’s unity government scheme would see power equally divided between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would each serve two years as premier.

Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands ahead of a meeting on October 28, 2019. (courtesy)

On Thursday, Blue and White and the Yisrael Beytenu parties said they reached understandings on several issues in coalition talks, the first such public announcement of progress since Gantz was tasked last month with forming a government.

The parties agreed the next annual budget would feature a minimum monthly pension increase for the elderly to 70 percent of the minimum wage, currently NIS 5,300 ($1,515) a month. They also agreed the next budget would not adversely impact plans to raise stipends for people with disabilities.

When Likud and Blue and White negotiators met on Wednesday, the sides said “big gaps remain” between them.

Amid political gridlock, Likud and Blue and White have regularly blamed each other for the failure to move forward in coalition talks, with each party seeking to cast the other as responsible if the country is forced to go to another election.

Likud has accused Gantz’s party of seeking to exclude the religious community from the government by refusing to accept the entire bloc, while Blue and White has said it is willing to negotiate with each of the parties separately but not as a single entity.

Gantz is also likely loathe to serve as a fig leaf for what would be a very right-wing coalition, after campaigning on forming a liberal government.

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