Ultra-Orthodox parties said willing to compromise to stave off third election

Ultra-Orthodox parties said willing to compromise to stave off third election

But Yisrael Beytenu MK says Avigdor Liberman’s party won’t join coalition with right-wing and religious parties, still seeks unity government

Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Just two days before the clock runs out on Benny Gantz’s efforts to form a coalition, the failure of which is expected to spell a third round of elections in under a year, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time signaled a willingness to compromise on religion and state disagreements that have prevented the right from unifying and forming a ruling coalition.

Leaders of Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism met Monday morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the latter’s meeting a day earlier with Avigdor Liberman, head of the secularist Russian-speaking party Yisrael Beytenu, and were told that a “development” had taken place in the talks with Liberman.

If Netanyahu manages to coax Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox factions into a united coalition, his right-wing bloc will form a parliamentary majority, though it may not be able to immediately establish a new government as the mandate for forming the next governing coalition was already handed to Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White leader Gantz, last month.

Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following the April 9 election after Yisrael Beytenu’s demands on religious issues were rejected out of hand by Shas and UTJ. Without a compromise between the religious right and the secular right, Netanyahu did not have the numbers in parliament to achieve a decisive electoral victory either in the April race or following the ensuing September election.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

At the same time, by managing to hold together his self-declared “bloc” of Likud, religious-Zionist factions and Haredi parties, Netanyahu has denied rival Gantz the parliamentary votes he needs to form his own coalition, leading to a six-month impasse that polls say will likely not be resolved in yet another election.

After Netanyahu’s latest failure to piece together a right-wing coalition in October, President Reuven Rivlin handed the baton to Gantz. If Gantz fails by the Wednesday deadline set in law, any MK from the 22nd Knesset — including Netanyahu or Gantz — can be nominated to form a coalition, or the Knesset can send the nation to another election.

The progress in talks between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu on Sunday prompted speculation Netanyahu could reconcile with Liberman and form a government in the upcoming 21-day window to do so. However, sources in the right-wing secularist party swiftly denied such a prospect.

Liberman has said he supports a unity government with Likud and Blue and White, without the religious parties.

The Maariv news site quoted Yisrael Beytenu Knesset faction chief MK Oded Forer insisting on Monday that the party preferred a unity government over a “narrow” right-wing one in any case.

“There’s no chance Yisrael Beytenu will join a narrow government of Netanyahu with the Haredim and [Jewish Home-National Union leaders Bezalel] Smotrich and [Rafi] Peretz,” Forer was quoted as telling party activists.

Top officials in the ultra-Orthodox parties told the Ynet news site they were “willing to talk about concrete proposals” for a compromise with Liberman, according to the site, which did not name the officials.

At issue are Liberman’s demands since April to pass a law regulating the draft of ultra-Orthodox young men and an easing of religious restrictions that are widely opposed in the Russian-speaking community.

Likud coalition negotiator Ze’ev Elkin, the environment minister, called Sunday’s Netanyahu-Liberman meeting “good” and said it dealt with “what needs to happen to form a broad unity government.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Shas and UTJ are slated to meet with Netanyahu again later Monday, Hebrew media reported, saying they expected to see “a concrete proposal.”

“When it comes to Jewish law, there’s no room for compromise simply because we don’t have the authority to give up on something related to Judaism,” an ultra-Orthodox party official said Monday.

The official added, however, that the Haredi factions were willing to compromise on issues of “public religion,” like the draft, allowing egalitarian access to the Western Wall, and public transportation on Shabbat.

The official said the ball was in Netanyahu’s court. “At the moment, no concrete proposal has been brought up for discussion. We’re hearing about these compromises only from the media. We have to understand exactly what Netanyahu wants to know how and whether we can move forward. If they want the Haredim to compromise on something, they have to give us something clear that we can take to the rabbis.”

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