Results in, Netanyahu adjusts priorities

Yesh Atid signals readiness to partner, though the prime minister’s already reaching out to ultra-Orthodox

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set out his principles for forming a new government Wednesday, issuing a brief statement in which he listed the needs for a more equitable distribution of the national burden, affordable housing and changing the system of government as his would-be coalition’s three top priorities.

“We woke up this morning to a clear message from the public: it wants me to form a government that will bring about great internal changes,” Netanyahu told reporters a day after general elections. “I spoke to (Likud-Beytenu No. 2) Avigdor Liberman and we decided that we will focus our talks on these three core issues, in addition to maintaining Israel’s security, in an effort to build as broad a coalition as possible.”

The new focus on social issues is a departure from the prime minister’s pre-election campaign, which focused nearly exclusively on security matters. The sharing of the national burden is a code term for universal conscription into the army or civil service, which would end a decades-old de facto exemption of the ultra-Orthodox from such service.

Netanyahu’s words were directed primarily at Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who shocked Israel’s political system Tuesday by winning 19 seats, making him the leader of the Knesset’s second-largest party and the likely key to any future coalition.

Netanyahu told Lapid in a phone call late Tuesday that he believed they could achieve a great deal together, but the permutations of a possible Likud-Beytenu-led coalition are varied. With 31 seats — a fall of 11 from the outgoing Knesset — Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu still holds the upper hand. But Lapid, with 19, has considerable leverage given the complex balance of forces in the incoming Knesset.

Still, Netanyahu was also looking elsewhere for coalition support and said Tuesday that he had scheduled an initial meeting with Shas’s Eli Yishai for Thursday. He also told Yaakov Litzman, of the United Torah Judaism party, that he wanted UTJ in government.

The Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin raised the stakes, warning on Wednesday that if the next government doesn’t manage to approve the budget within 45 days the country may have to call another general election.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Rivlin said that his own Likud party should be charged with forming the next government, but added that it should be as wide as possible to prevent another election.

“The failure of the previous government to pass the budget was a main impetus for calling the January elections,” said Rivlin, warning that if Netanyahu isn’t able to form a coalition that will pass a new budget in time, new elections would be inevitable.

Lapid said in his speech to supporters overnight that Israel needed a government of “moderate” parties, including from left and right.

Yael German, third on the Yesh Atid list, said in an interview with Israel Radio that the fundamental principles of Yesh Atid are reasonable and can be achieved. German noted that even the Likud agrees with the imperative for a universal draft and for lowering the cost of living, two of the party’s leading campaign demands.

She stressed that Yesh Atid also demands better housing rights for young couples, wants the core government education program –including mathematics, English, and civic studies — to be taught in ultra-Orthodox schools, and seeks to restart the peace negotiations.

German added that a universal draft law can be passed as soon as the next government is established, and the housing issue can also be immediately attended to.

However, she warned that her party will not remain in the government if Netanyahu doesn’t implement agreed-upon guidelines. She added that she would like to see as wide a representation in the government as possible and added that Yesh Atid will not exclude any party from joining the coalition if it accepts the guidelines.

That statement runs counter to those that party leader Lapid made before the elections in which he said he would not join a Likud-led coalition whose sole partners are extreme right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Liberman promised that Likud and Yisrael Beytenu would continue to lead Israel with responsibility and security.

“The voters’ decision dictates that the next government focus on internal issues, first and foremost of which are the universal draft, changing the system of government, and affordable living,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook page. “In terms of diplomacy, we will be happy to meet with the Palestinians, but without preconditions.”

Yisrael Beytenu scheduled a meeting for Wednesday evening that would be held without the presence of Likud representatives, Ynet reported.

Likewise, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, which won just six seats, scheduled a faction meeting. Party officials said Livni would rather be in the coalition, as she is “fed up with the adventure of being the opposition.”

The officials admitted that the party was disappointed with its election result, which they blamed on the failure to form a unified center-left bloc with Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

“Anyway, it seems that Lapid also prefers to join Livni in the government,” the sources said.

Meanwhile, leading Labor Party members expressed their disappointment in leader Yachimovich’s election campaign, which ultimately garnered the party a lackluster 15 seats. Several officials criticized Yachimovich for running a “one-woman show.”

“She has to step down,” said MK Daniel Ben-Simon, “or at the very least put herself up for a leadership challenge.”

Meretz head Zahava Gal-on posted a heartfelt thank-you on her Facebook page after she saw her party double in size to six seats.

“I am sending out a virtual hug and hope that you can feel it,” she wrote. “Thank you, whoever you are, for your support… in our campaign for equality, justice, human and civil rights, democracy and peace. Thanks to you we will reach our goal.”

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