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Parties report ‘significant progress’ in coalition talks with Netanyahu

Right-religious bloc advances negotiations as Religious Zionism, UTJ and Shas haggle with Likud over policy, ministry appointments; Herzog kicks off consultations on PM pick

Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Not waiting for President Isaac Herzog to officially hand him a mandate to form a government, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Wednesday with right-wing and religious parties expected to join his nascent coalition, who reported progress in the negotiations.

Across town at the President’s Residence, Herzog kicked off consultations with parties on whom to tap to form a government. A high-stakes process in past elections, strong showings by Netanyahu and allies in last week’s election have served to turn the process into a mere formality.

Netanyahu met Wednesday with Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, after meetings earlier this week with Smotrich’s political partners representing the other parties in his far-right alliance for informal coalition talks.

“The meeting was held in good spirits and significant progress was made toward the establishment of the national government,” Religious Zionism said in a terse statement.

On Monday, Netanyahu met with Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party and Religious Zionism’s No. 2. Netanyahu and Ben Gvir were pictured for the first time together after Netanyahu refused to publicly appear alongside the incendiary far-right lawmaker during the election campaign. Ben Gvir said afterward that “a full, full right-wing government” was on the way.

Netanyahu met Tuesday with Avi Maoz, the leader of the far-right, anti-LGBTQ Noam party, which also ran on Smotrich’s ticket.

Religious Zionism won 14 seats in last week’s election, becoming the third-largest party in the Knesset and the second-biggest in Netanyahu’s bloc, giving it significant sway in negotiations. Analysts say the party’s popularity was driven by Ben Gvir, an extremist with a history of inciting violence who Netanyahu ushered into mainstream politics last year.

Netanyahu also met Wednesday with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, longtime allies to the Likud leader who are set to join his coalition.

UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The meeting was held in good spirits, significant progress was made and it was agreed the meetings will continue ahead of the establishment of the next government,” UTJ said after the meeting between Netanyahu and the Ashkenazi party’s leaders, Moshe Gafni and Yitzhak Goldknopf. The party won seven seats in the election.

The parties need to hammer out agreements on ministry positions, policy, budgetary promises and other measures in order to establish a government, a process that Likud is seemingly look to wrap up swiftly. Netanyahu’s likely coalition is set to include his Likud party, the Haredi UTJ and Shas parties and Religious Zionism, all of which had pledged allegiance to the former premier in the past.

Netanyahu secured a comfortable majority for his bloc in the elections, but the negotiations still need to overcome some stumbling blocks, including parties seeking commitments from Netanyahu that the coalition will advance certain legislative priorities.

UTJ said recently it would not join the government unless it receives a commitment from Likud to pass a bill that would enable the Knesset to override the High Court should it strike down legislation.

The speedy passage of the controversial measure is also backed by Religious Zionism. Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, however, is reportedly aligned with Netanyahu’s approach that first a government must be established with ministerial positions allocated, and only afterward its guiding policies be negotiated by coalition members.

Likud party chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu seen after coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 13 said Netanyahu is still deliberating about which path to choose for the override bill, though other media has previously said that he wants to put it on the back-burner for the time being.

The ultra-Orthodox parties and Smotrich are also demanding changes to restrict Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic immigration rights to anyone of Jewish descent, Channel 13 reported.

The religious parties want to cancel a clause that allows those who only have one Jewish grandparent to obtain citizenship.

Many of those who fall into that category are not considered Jewish under Halacha, the set of religious rules and regulations followed by Orthodox Jews, which is the reason behind the demand to change the stipulation. A Likud party source told Channel 13 dropping the clause could provoke outrage in the US Jewish community as well as communities in countries of the former Soviet Union.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks to Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (second from right) for informal coalition talks at a Likud party office in Tel Aviv on November 7, 2022. (Courtesy)

UTJ was reportedly planning to arrive at the Wednesday meeting with additional demands related to the exemption from the army draft for the ultra-Orthodox community, and putting control over conversions to Judaism solely under the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by ultra-Orthodox officials.

Netanyahu’s bloc also needs to allocate government ministries to coalition lawmakers. Religious Zionism has demanded top portfolios, including the public security ministry, which oversees police, for Ben Gvir.

Smotrich met with Deri on Tuesday to haggle over the position of finance minister, Channel 13 reported. Smotrich reportedly said he is prepared to give up on the finance ministry if Deri wants it, but that he will demand the defense ministry instead.

Netanyahu’s Likud, the largest party in the Knesset with 32 seats, wants to keep the top ministries for its own lawmakers.

President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday started meetings with members of all the factions elected to the next Knesset for . Each faction recommends to the president which party leader they want to form the government, then the president assigns the task to whoever he believes has the best chance of success. Herzog is set to give the nod to Netanyahu on Sunday.

President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of Likud on November 9, 2022 (President’s Residence)

Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc received 64 seats in last week’s election, enough for a majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Meeting with Herzog Wednesday as part of formal consultations on who should assemble the next government, Likud chief negotiator Yariv Levin, a close confidant to Netanyahu said the party wants to form the next government with as little delay as possible. Netanyahu is reportedly pushing parties to come to terms and set up a coalition as early as next week.

“We will make an effort to form the government as quickly as possible,” Levin said at the president’s Jerusalem residence, shortly after delivering his party’s recommendation that Netanyahu be tapped to form the next government.

Likud lawmaker Eli Cohen told Herzog that the government will be formed “in the coming weeks.”

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