Rivlin grants Netanyahu 2 more weeks for coalition talks

Amid tense negotiations, prime minister has until May 7 to deliver a government or risk losing a fourth term as premier

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) seen with President Reuven Rivlin (right) at the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) seen with President Reuven Rivlin (right) at the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a 14-day extension to coalition talks on Monday, the maximum allowed under law. Netanyahu now has until May 7 to complete the negotiations and establish his new government.

“We’ve moved forward, and we’re well on our way,” Netanyahu said in a joint press conference with the president at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Monday morning, “but more time is needed to make sure [the government] is a stable one, and to reach agreement on a number of important [issues] that will enable us to tackle the challenges facing the state of Israel.”

“The nation as a whole is eager for a government that can make decisions,” said Rivlin, urging a swift conclusion to the coalition negotiations.

“The public sees an interim government as something that must be corrected. I wish you success in establishing a stable government for the State of Israel in the coming days,” the president added.

Netanyahu looks close to finalizing deals with two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, who are seeking ministries and parliamentary committees with large budgets catering to their constituents. He also appears to be close to a deal with the centrist, economy-focused Kulanu party.

But large gaps remain with the two other pieces needed to complete the puzzle, the nationalist Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties, both of whom are led by long-time Netanyahu associates who have a tumultuous relationship with the prime minister.

Despite disappointing election results, both parties are demanding top cabinet posts and major influence that appear disproportionate to their numbers. Netanyahu has yet to budge and has signaled he may leave them out.

According to a report on the Ynet news site, Jewish Home demands that Ayelet Shaked, the party’s No. 3, be given a ministerial post, and that the Religious Affairs Ministry not be handed over to Shas. Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett on Sunday threatened to break from negotiations with Netanyahu should the prime minister give Shas the religious affairs portfolio.

“Taking the religious [affairs] portfolio unilaterally from religious Zionism and giving it to Shas is the end of negotiations with the Jewish Home [party],” he tweeted.

Yisrael Beytenu, a right-wing secular nationalist party, won’t budge on rolling back religious legislation on universal national service for the ultra-Orthodox and reforms of the state conversion and marriage registration systems, matters which Netanyahu’s religious party allies seek to change. If Netanyahu concedes these issues to Shas and United Torah Judaism, party officials told Ynet that Yisrael Beytenu has no qualms about joining the opposition.

Meanwhile, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon on Sunday night said he would only join the coalition if Yisrael Beytenu or the Zionist Union were in, Channel 2 reported. Without one of the two parties, Netanyahu’s majority would not rise above 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, giving every individual MK in the coalition the power to threaten the government’s stability.

With a resounding election victory last month, Netanyahu seemed to have an easy path toward quickly establishing a coalition government with his traditional nationalist, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies. But after weeks of negotiations with potential partners, Netanyahu is finding the task harder than expected and is reportedly — at least according to threats from Likud officials — flirting with the idea of reaching out to his main dovish rivals in Zionist Union to form a unity government.

Which way Netanyahu goes will have broad implications. If he sides with the right-wing allies that he often calls his “natural” partners, Netanyahu will have a solid parliamentary majority of like-minded parties that could avoid much of the infighting that plagued the outgoing government and provide some welcome political stability at home.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left) and Shas leader Aryeh Deri at a celebration in honor of Deri's birthday, in the Knesset, February 18, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left) and Shas leader Aryeh Deri at a celebration in honor of Deri’s birthday, in the Knesset, February 18, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

But such a coalition — averse to peace moves with the Palestinians and in favor of expanded settlement construction in the West Bank — quickly would find itself on a collision course with the international community at a time when Netanyahu is already feuding with his allies over the moribund peace process and a nuclear deal with Iran that he loathes. A unity government that includes his leftist rivals would help blunt that looming international isolation.

Throughout the heated campaign, Netanyahu ruled out the possibility of joining forces with Isaac Herzog and his center-left Zionist Union and vowed to rule from the right.

Election results gave his Likud party 30 seats and secured him a potential 67-seat majority with his traditional allies. In negotiations, however, these allies have made demands to head powerful government ministries.

Under Israeli election rules, if Netanyahu fails to form a coalition at the end of 42 days — the first 28 plus the two-week extension — Rivlin can assign someone else the task of doing so. While this is technically possible, it is unlikely that Zionist Union would have an easier time establishing a coalition. If no one succeeds in forming a coalition, the president would be left with no choice but to order a new national election.

Few expect it to come to that, and the 67-seat right-wing government seems to be the most likely outcome.

Tzachi Hanegbi, the deputy foreign minister from Netanyahu’s Likud, said the prospect of Herzog joining the coalition was only becoming a possibility due to the hardball approach of the right-wing parties.

“It is rising only as an extreme scenario whose chances of coming true are a result of Jewish Home or Yisrael Beytenu, either both of them or one of them, stubbornly refusing to show flexibility,” he told Israel’s Army Radio Sunday.

While the threat may be a pressure tactic, there are large issues at stake. Despite his rhetoric, aides acknowledge that Netanyahu is concerned about clashes with his allies in the US and western Europe.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog at the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem on February 24, 2015 (Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog at the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem on February 24, 2015 (Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

Increased settlement construction, a prolonged absence of Palestinian peace talks and nationalist legislation that critics argue undermines Israel’s democratic nature would surely draw a strong rebuke and perhaps even calls for sanctions and boycotts. With his relations with US President Barack Obama at a low point following clashes over Mideast peace and the Iranian nuclear talks, there is a real fear that Israel’s top ally may rescind its automatic protection of Israel at the United Nations and other international bodies.

Netanyahu has partnered with his adversaries in the past to shield himself from similar fallout.

In 2009, he added then-Labor party leader Ehud Barak as his defense minister and point man to the West. And in his last government, he brought in dovish ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni to be his chief peace negotiator.

Herzog is under heavy pressure from his followers not to offer Netanyahu that political cover again. Both men have denied reports of a secret meeting. Over the weekend, Herzog vowed to go to the opposition.

“Sitting in the opposition is not a default choice but a preference,” he said. “Our place is in the opposition. We will replace the Likud government [in the next election].”

But Herzog’s Labor party, the main partner in the Zionist Union slate, has a long history of ousting its defeated leaders, so Herzog also may be tempted to jump at a chance to gain some influence and job security — most likely as Netanyahu’s foreign minister. Herzog is the seventh leader of the party since it last won a national election in 1999.

Herzog’s only hint of common ground with Netanyahu was a position paper issued by his party that backed Netanyahu’s opposition to the recent US-led framework nuclear deal with Iran. On this crucial matter, it said “there is no coalition or opposition” in Israel.

So far, Herzog’s party rank-and-file seems to oppose joining Netanyahu and appears eager to watch a hard-line government fail. But there are also growing voices in Israel saying that Herzog’s Zionist Union does not have the luxury to make that kind of cold political calculation.

“Its presence in the coalition is critical to preserving Israel as a liberal democracy,” liberal columnist Carlo Strenger wrote in the Haaretz daily newspaper. “Ultimately, the idea of staying in the opposition is based on a deep illusion: It is that the liberal center-left is likely to regain power in the foreseeable future, and that Israel’s electorate just has to realize how destructive the political right’s policies are.”

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