Ultra-Orthodox Shas inks deal to join coalition

Party to control economy, religious affairs ministries, receives several other posts; Likud makes ‘unprecedented offer’ to Jewish Home

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with leader of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri, during a plenum session in the Knesset on May 4, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with leader of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri, during a plenum session in the Knesset on May 4, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Shas on Monday night, giving the ultra-Orthodox party control of the economy and religious affairs ministries and moving one step closer to building a government.

Under the agreement, Shas will also control the Negev and the Galilee development ministry, and Shas MKs will be appointed deputy finance minister, the chairman of the education committee, and deputy Knesset speaker.

The announcement came hours after the Yisrael Beytenu party announced it would sit in the opposition, a major blow to Netanyahu’s efforts to build a stable coalition.

With the addition of Shas’s seven seats, Netanyahu now has 53 seats in his coalition. The expected addition of the eight-MK Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party will give him the 61 mandates needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, albeit a razor-thin one.

Upon signing the deal, Deri urged Netanyahu to expand the coalition beyond the unstable 61 MKs, and appealed to the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog to join the coalition.

“I call on Zionist Union chairman Herzog, join the government, there is real chance for a social government,” Deri said, according to the Kikar HaShabat website.

Earlier, Deri said his party “always wanted a broad government.” He said he hoped that “efforts will be made in the future to widen it.” Deri also noted, however, that “sometimes a small and homogeneous coalition is better than a wider one.”

While Shas received the religious affairs portfolio, the issue of conversion will remain under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ynet news website reported.

The Jewish Home party has strongly objected to handing over the religious affairs portfolio to the ultra-Orthodox party.

Shas has now become the third party to join Netanyahu’s coalition, after Kulanu and United Torah Judaism singed on last week.

The Likud party on Monday evening released a statement outlining an “unprecedented” offer to Jewish Home, under which chairman Naftali Bennett would receive the education and diaspora ministries, and membership in the security cabinet, and the education budget would be increased significantly.

Netanyahu also offered Bennett’s party the agriculture, and culture and sport portfolios, as well as the deputy defense ministership and the Settlement Division.

“If the Jewish Home rejects this offer, the only alternative to a national Likud government is a left-wing government headed by Herzog, in which there would be no representation for religious Zionists. A left-wing government which will evacuate settlements, compromise on Jerusalem, harm the religious Zionist public and bow to international pressure,” Likud said in a statement.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon on Monday voiced concern about the emerging shaky coalition, and said he would encourage the prime minister to incorporate additional parties or persuade Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu to join the coalition.

“Today, unfortunately, we were informed that we would probably head to a 61-[seat] government,” Kahlon said in a statement. “I said in the past, and I say today, that a 61-[seat] government is not a good government, certainly not in the face of the tasks facing us.”

Kahlon said that, since he signed a coalition agreement, his hands are “a bit tied,” but said he would speak to Netanyahu. “And I have no doubt that he will work to expand the coalition, will appeal to other parties or convince Liberman to return.”

Liberman announced his decision to reject the coalition and resign as foreign minister at a press conference in the Knesset earlier on Monday.

“We have come to a unanimous decision that it would not be right for us to join the coalition. We chose our principles over cabinet seats,” Liberman claimed.

Netanyahu has until Thursday to cobble together a coalition.

Should Jewish Home hold out, analysts say the prime minister could still turn to the left-leaning Zionist Union to form a unity government, though officials on both sides have put the kibosh on that idea.

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