Coalition talks

Yesh Atid threatens Netanyahu: Education Ministry or no deal

Likud MK says PM may yet change course and partner with the ultra-Orthodox parties, but that would still leave him short of a majority

Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen raised the stakes in the battle between his party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud over the identity of the next education minister, saying Wednesday that Yesh Atid would sooner sit in the opposition or go to new elections than give up on the influential portfolio.

“Education is at our core,” Cohen told Israel Radio. “It’s up to the prime minister to decide whether to give it to us or face new elections.”

The first-time MK said Yesh Atid wanted control of the Education Ministry because of its importance to shaping Israeli society, and charged that Likud only cared about the post because it ensured the party could maintain its influence over the ultra-Orthodox public by controlling the purse strings that fund Haredi educational institutions.

“We plan to introduce greater transparency to the budget, which discriminates between sectors [of Israeli society],” said Cohen, himself a former school principal.

Likud MK Danny Danon slammed Lapid for engaging in political extortion. In an interview to Army Radio, he warned that “if we allow ourselves to be extorted now on the little things, we will face far greater extortion, over bigger issues, in the future.”

Danon stressed that Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (19 seats) more or less equaled religious parties Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (7) in the number of Knesset seats it won in January. “If he [Lapid] fails to realize that, he may find himself out of the government,” Danon said, hinting that Netanyahu might change course and decide to invite the two religious parties into the coalition instead of Yesh Atid.

As if to drive the point home, Netanyahu met with Shas head Eli Yishai Tuesday evening.

But unless Likud can persuade Jewish Home to enter the coalition without Yesh Atid — which it has so far failed to do — that would still leave Netanyahu short of a Knesset majority.

With only three days remaining for Netanyahu to form a coalition, representatives from Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home were set to meet again Wednesday to try to hash out an agreement, after Lapid rejected a power-sharing deal for the education portfolio.

Likud is determined to see party member and current Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar maintain his position, while Yesh Atid would like the post to go to party No. 2, MK Rabbi Shai Piron. Lapid said no to a suggestion that the job “rotate” between the two.

Likud, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home were also battling over control of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, with Jewish Home adamantly seeking to chair the panel.

Israel’s two teachers’ unions came out Monday evening in favor of keeping Sa’ar in the post for another term, urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to replace Sa’ar, who they said “is certain to continue supporting Israel’s educators as he has until now.”

Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home agreed on Monday to shrink the Cabinet to 20 ministers plus the prime minister, down from 30 in the last government. The issue had been a central demand of the Yesh Atid party, which had wanted a cap of 18 ministers.

Netanyahu has until March 16 to form a governing coalition. If he fails, President Shimon Peres could ask another party leader to try to form a government, or call for new general elections.

In the meantime, Likud went on the offensive regarding the stalemated talks. Likud MK Miri Regev said on Monday evening that Yesh Atid’s demand for the education portfolio “for Shai Tiron (Hebrew for “rookie” – a play on Piron’s name) is arrogance.”

With the agreed-upon downsizing of the cabinet, the Likud will reportedly have 10-11 ministers, including three or four from Yisrael Beytenu; Yesh Atid will have five, Jewish Home three, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua may be asked to go down from a promised two ministers to just one — something Livni is bitterly resisting.

Leaks from the talks indicated no ministerial position for Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, prompting speculation that Kadima may not be in the coalition. Channel 2 claimed Netanyahu does not want Mofaz — with whom he partnered for 70 days late last spring in an unhappy coalition alliance — in the government, in part because of the positions Mofaz has taken in the last few weeks’ coalition negotiations.

The likely reduction in the size of the Cabinet marks a significant achievement for Lapid, who argued that a lean government would set the right example for Israel as it faces budget cuts in a challenging economic environment. But it is offset somewhat by the fact that there are reportedly set to be eight deputy ministers.

The smaller cabinet will complicate Netanyahu’s difficulties within his own Likud, where too many outgoing ministers and rising political players are competing for too few cabinet seats. Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely, two younger politicians who did well in the Likud party primaries, have been publicly advancing their own claims, but are seen as unlikely to make it into the cabinet. And there may simply not be enough jobs for all outgoing Likud ministers such as Silvan Shalom, Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Yuval Steinitz and Limor Livnat.

Livni’s Hatnua party, the only party to have signed up to join the coalition to date, was promised two ministries (justice for Livni and environment for Amir Peretz), but may now be asked to make do with one. Sources in her party vowed Tuesday not to compromise, and threatened to “go into the opposition” if necessary.

After a weekend of marathon negotiations, potential coalition partners agreed on Sunday on a general outline of “severe personal sanctions” against Haredim who fail to sign up for IDF or national service. Reportedly, those who do not enlist will not face criminal charges, but will be prohibited from leaving the country and won’t be eligible for welfare and tax benefits (including social security payments for large families), among other penalties.

In addition, religious educational institutions that encourage their students to dodge the draft, like some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, will face a “significant” reduction in funding from the state. There have been conflicting reports on the number of annual exemptions from military service that will be offered to outstanding scholars. Yesh Atid wants a maximum of 400; reports from the negotiations have indicated that the final number may be closer to 1,500-2,000.

Another of the final sticking points appeared to be a disagreement between the largely secular Yesh Atid and the religious-hardline Jewish Home regarding an initiative to provide public transportation on Saturday. One more issue that was holding up a deal was said to be Bennett’s demand for the Public Diplomacy Ministry in addition to the position of industry, trade and labor minister.

Lapid, who had hoped to become foreign minister, will instead serve as finance minister. The Foreign Ministry post will be kept open for former FM Avigdor Liberman, who resigned in December to fight corruption charges and hopes to clear his name and return quickly to the post.

The defense minister will likely be former IDF chief of the General Staff Moshe Ya’alon (Likud); Housing could well go to Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, while the same party’s Eli Ben Dahan could take Religious Affairs; and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz could become minister of welfare.

The coalition will likely comprise Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12), and Hatnua (6) — possibly along with Kadima (2) — for a total of 68-70. Labor (15) will lead an opposition that will also include the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (7).

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