Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday tapped Likud’s No. 2 Yuli Edelstein for his third consecutive term as Knesset speaker, as coalition talks between his right-wing party and its would-be partners began in earnest.
Netanyahu backed Edelstein for Knesset speaker during a meeting between the two on Sunday in Jerusalem, according to a statement. Edelstein has previously expressed interest in keeping his post, which he has held since 2013.
The appointment comes after some tension between the two Likud leaders: during the February Likud party primaries, Netanyahu declined to endorse Edelstein in his recommendations to voters. But Likud supporters ignored the snub and reinstalled the Knesset speaker as the top candidate after Netanyahu.
Also Sunday, Netanyahu and Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, met for the second time in four days. A statement from the Likud party said Netanyahu and Kahlon discussed Israel’s economy. But according to television reports on Sunday night, the two discussed the possible financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
Last week, it was suggested that the notion of a merger between the Kulanu and Likud parties was on the agenda for their Thursday meeting, but Kahlon has reportedly cooled on the idea, and the matter was apparently not raised during those talks.
The Likud’s chief negotiator for coalition negotiations, Minister Yariv Levin, on Sunday also met with representatives of the eight-seat Shas party for the first time, to hear their demands for entering the government.
According to the Walla news site, the ultra-Orthodox party, led by Aryeh Deri, is seeking the interior, housing, and religious affairs ministries. Shas and United Torah Judaism, with eight seats each, are the largest parties expected to enter the government, after the 35-seat Likud.
Netanyahu has sat down with the leaders of all the parties he hopes to fold into his coalition, namely Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu, and the Union of Right-Wing Parties.
If he enters the new coalition, Kulanu’s current four seats will make it the smallest party in the government. Despite his poorer showing, Kahlon is insisting on keeping the Finance Ministry for himself and having MK Eli Cohen stay on as economy minister.
Still, the demands of Kulanu, a party which has focused on economic issues, are thought to pale in comparison with those that will be made by Netanyahu’s other likely coalition partners.
Coalition talks were mostly on hold during the Passover holiday. Netanyahu technically has only 28 days to form a coalition, giving him until mid-May, and he may ask President Reuven Rivlin for an extension.
Last week, negotiators for Yisrael Beytenu and Likud met for the first round of coalition negotiations, with the former presenting a list of demands on security, immigration, and religion and state issues.
The sides failed to come to any agreement and said they would meet again at a later date.
The most thorny issue is expected to be 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 at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Liberman has backed Netanyahu as the next premier, cementing the right-wing coalition at 65 seats. But his party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November, in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.
The Union of Right-Wing Parties is demanding the justice and education portfolios, as well as wide-ranging legislative concessions.
URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich also reiterated Sunday that the party aims to push legislation amending the law providing immunity from prosecution for MKs. As things stand, an MK can seek immunity from prosecution via a majority in the Knesset House Committee and the plenum; URWP seeks to revert to the version of the law that was in force until 2005, under which an MK was automatically granted immunity from prosecution unless the House Committee and then a majority of MKs in the plenum voted to lift it.
Smotrich denied on Sunday that he was seeking to change the law in order to help Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges in three cases pending a hearing.
“The immunity law is not intended to serve the prime minister. He is not the story here, and this legislation, or something like it, is necessary, even if Netanyahu opposes it,”said Smotrich. “This is a law intended to serve the Israeli public and democracy, a law that aims… to enable elected officials to devote their time and efforts to the state and not to hearings in the courts.”
A source in the party claimed to Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu might actually oppose such legislation, since it would bring him into open conflict with the state prosecution. But Yedioth also noted that URWP initiating such legislation might be convenient for him, since he could claim not to be behind the initiative while potentially benefiting from it.
Netanyahu has denied all allegations of wrongdoing and asserted that he has no need for immunity since he is confident he will not be indicted. At the same time, in the run-up to the elections, he gave mixed messages about whether he would seek or back legislative initiatives, including a so-called “French Law,” to render himself immune to prosecution as long as he is prime minister.