Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drove the short distance from his residence to the President’s Residence Saturday night to formally confirm to President Shimon Peres that he has managed to muster a majority coalition. Peres charged him with the task on February 2, in the wake of the January 22 elections, and gave him a two-week extension four weeks later, making Saturday the final day of Netanyahu’s maximal six-week allocation.
“I’ve fulfilled the mission with which you entrusted me,” the prime minister told the president.
Netanyahu said the coming year would be “a critical year” marked by challenges in the security sphere, the economic sphere, and in efforts to make peace. “I believe we can bring good news for all Israel’s citizens in all these fields,” he said. “That’s my task, and I know it’s your prayer.”
Peres said he knew how hard it had been to muster a majority, and congratulated Netanyahu on managing the task. Peres said that along with the challenges facing Israel, “there are lots of opportunities in the areas of security, social action, and peacemaking.” He added that “this is the time” to seize them for the good of the country and its people.
Netanyahu was able to report on his success after the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties finally signed a coalition agreement with Likud-Beytenu Friday afternoon, paving the way for the new government to be sworn in on Monday.
Earlier on Saturday, Netanyahu also formally informed the Knesset’s acting speaker, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, that the work of building a new coalition was complete.
On Sunday, Netanyahu is to meet with members of his own party and inform them of the roles they will play — or won’t play — in the new cabinet. Silvan Shalom, the outgoing minister for regional development and the Negev and the Galilee, was reported Saturday night to be threatening not to join the government if he is not given a significant role. Likud MK Danny Danon, who came in fifth in the Likud primaries, is also demanding a prominent position, but seems set to be disappointed.
Most of the key appointments to the Cabinet are known, including Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid leader, at the Treasury, Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon at defense, and the Foreign Ministry portfolio being held vacant for Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman. Likud’s Zeev Elkin, set to be named deputy foreign minister, said Saturday he had not been confirmed in the post, but anticipated he would be on Sunday.
Shelly Yachimovich, the Labor leader, said Friday she looked forward to leading a robust opposition, and had no regrets about rejecting Netanyahu’s repeated invitations to join the coalition.
“The new government will work together in full cooperation for the benefit of the entire Israeli public. We will act to strengthen the state of Israel’s security and to improve the quality of life of its citizens,” said Netanyahu in a statement Friday.
“We promised during elections to take care of the cost of living, to increase competition in the marketplace and to restore to the state its Jewish soul, and now we’ve got the tools to do it,” Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett told reporters.
“With God’s help, we signed it. The 33rd government is ready to go!,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “I encourage Prime Minister Netanyahu and all of us Cabinet ministers to remember that we are representatives of the entire Israeli public.”
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party signed up to the coalition last month, but Netanyahu then faced weeks of difficult talks with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid over coalition terms. Livni will lead peace efforts with the Palestinians, under Netanyahu’s supervision. However any territorial withdrawal, the coalition agreements reportedly state, will require a national referendum.
The two parties insisted on a smaller government — of 22 ministers — and on commitments for radical reform to bring ultra-Orthodox men into military service and the workforce, for a “core curriculum” to be taught in ultra-Orthodox schools, and for electoral reform, among other issues. Their demands were anathema to the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which will now sit in a 52-strong Knesset opposition led by the Labor party.
The coalition agreement had seemed a done deal on Wednesday, but hit a snag Thursday after Jewish Home representatives skipped a final meeting with Likud-Beytenu negotiators, over the issue of whether Bennett would be afforded a “deputy prime minister” title.
According to the final deal, both Bennett and Lapid will forgo the mostly ceremonial title.
In return, Bennett will head the Cabinet panel on concentration of wealth and market competition, and his party will head a joint Knesset committee tasked with drafting a new universal military conscription law.
The coalition comprises four parties: Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12) and Hatnua (6), for a total of 68 members in the 120-seat Knesset.
The outgoing government is set to hold a final meeting on Sunday, and the new government is to be sworn in Monday — some 48 hours before the scheduled arrival of Barack Obama on his first presidential visit.