Overnight coalition talks fail to yield breakthrough as deadline looms

Overnight coalition talks fail to yield breakthrough as deadline looms

Netanyahu struggling to negotiate a compromise between Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties, with elections likely if no solution reached by Wednesday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)

Emergency overnight coalition talks in an attempt to bridge gaps between the ultra-Orthodox parties and the secular Yisrael Beytenu party failed to yield a solution, Hebrew-language media reported Sunday morning, with just four days remaining until the deadline for announcing a new government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the head of his Likud party’s negotiations team, MK Yariv Levin, with unnamed officials telling the media no progress was made in trying to reconcile the conflicting demands regarding highly contentious legislation regulating the number of ultra-Orthodox seminar students drafted to the military.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman said on Saturday that his party would endorse no other candidate for prime minister except Benjamin Netanyahu, but also that Israel may be headed for fresh elections unless the ruling Likud party agrees to a number of Yisrael Beytenu’s core demands, chiefly by passing the so-called Haredi draft bill.

Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, right, attends a Knesset House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With just four days to go until the May 29 deadline for Netanyahu to form a government, Liberman urged Likud to accept its demands. “Accept our proposal [on the Haredi draft law]. If not, we will again go to elections. The people will decide whether they want a right-wing government or an ultra-Orthodox government,” he wrote.

He did offer a suggestion for resolving the standoff, however, suggesting that ultra-Orthodox legislators could leave the Knesset plenum if and when the Haredi draft law was finally approved, “just as they did when it passed its first reading” in the last Knesset.

Several news outlets reported Sunday morning that Netanyahu is estimating that Liberman will not budge from his stance that the Haredi draft law must pass without any change from the version that passed its first reading in the Knesset last year — a non-starter for the ultra-Orthodox parties — and that he is interested in new elections.

The Kan public broadcaster quoted senior Likud sources as saying that while the ruling party’s fiery rhetoric last week was primarily directed toward Liberman — accusing him of “thwarting” a right-wing government — it was in fact directed at pressuring the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are perceived to be fearful of new elections while Liberman has no problem with that scenario.

However, other reports indicated that UTJ and Shas had only intensified their demands.

Illustrative: Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left), Shas leader Aryeh Deri (center), and United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman at the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Coalition talks will continue Sunday, with Likud representatives meeting the URWP team at 12 p.m.

On Thursday, the leader of the URWP, MK Rafi Peretz, notified Netanyahu that his party remains insistent that it be given the justice and education ministries in the next government, Channel 13 news reported. URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich vowed early Thursday that he would be justice minister, or his party would not join the coalition.

Netanyahu wants a Likud legislator helming the Justice Ministry, however, as he bids to avoid prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he is facing indictment, pending a hearing, since he is widely reported to be seeking to advance legislation that would render him immune from prosecution.

But the real sticky issue remains Liberman, who on Friday ripped Likud over its handling of the coalition talks and accused it of pandering to its ultra-Orthodox allies.

On Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar also accused Likud of handling coalition talks in an “arrogant and careless way,” focusing on the immunity law for the first three weeks after the elections and then spending another week deciding on a candidate for the State Comptroller, before turning to the matters of religion and state.

Liberman on Saturday said he had been approached by members of Likud to join a government without the premier, a claim quickly denied by the ruling party.

Without Yisrael Beytenu, Likud could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman and his party did not vote against such a coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon deliver a joint statement to the press about a new tax reduction, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon ruled out such a possibility during a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu and other party leaders, Hebrew-language media reported.

Kahlon, head of the four-seat Kulanu, said such a government would have trouble functioning and would quickly unravel, according to the Haaretz daily.

Kulanu lawmaker Roy Folkman told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that Kahlon has told Netanyahu that a 60-seat coalition was “unacceptable.”

Liberman boycotted Thursday’s meeting, during which Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners vowed to push ahead with attempts to form a government.

Most political analysts on Thursday still assessed that Netanyahu would manage to persuade all five other parties — UTJ, Shas, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — to join his Likud in a 65-strong coalition ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for doing so.

If that doesn’t happen, President Reuven Rivlin will have to decide whether to task another Knesset member with forming the next coalition. Since the prevailing assessment is that nobody will be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, months after the April 9 vote.

read more: