Yisrael Beytenu, Likud officials powwow as coalition talks kick off

Yisrael Beytenu, Likud officials powwow as coalition talks kick off

No agreement reached on ultra-Orthodox enlistment; Netanyahu associate previously embroiled in sexual misconduct scandal allowed to join talks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman sign a coalition agreement in the Knesset on May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman sign a coalition agreement in the Knesset on May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Coalition negotiations began Sunday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, with the latter presenting a list of demands on security, immigration, and religion and state issues.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin from Likud and Oded Forer of Yisrael Beytenu, both heading their respective parties’ negotiation teams, met at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan for several hours.

The sides failed to come to any agreement and said they would meet again at a later date.

The most thorny issue is expected to be legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students, which the secularist Liberman is insisting should be passed without amendment, while ultra-Orthodox parties have said they will not join the coalition if it is advanced without changes. Both Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox are essential for Netanyahu if he is to assemble a governing coalition with a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Liberman has backed Netanyahu as the next premier, cementing the right-wing coalition at 65 seats. But his party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer at the Knesset on December 13, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We are expecting tough and complex negotiations, which will take some time,” Forer said after the meeting.

In an official statement, Yisrael Beytenu said the meeting was carried out “in good spirits,” that the party had presented its demands in various areas and that the teams agreed to hold another meeting soon.

Likud also said the meeting was conducted in good spirits and that it had received a long list of demands, many of which had to do with budgetary matters such as pensions for immigrants, as well as fortifications of structures in the north.

“The issue that remains problematic at this stage is the enlistment law — that has no solution at this stage,” Likud said.

Joining the meeting was Netanyahu confidant Natan Eshel, whose participation in the coalition talks has been criticized due to his past resignation from the Prime Minister’s Office over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Eshel served in the PMO between 2009 and 2012 and resigned as part of a plea bargain over the allegations, specifically that he had used a surreptitiously placed camera to film under the skirt of a female colleague. He was also accused of accessing her private emails.

Natan Eshel in February. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / Flash90)
Natan Eshel (Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

Tamar Zandberg, head of the left-wing Meretz party, last week asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit not to approve Eshel’s inclusion on the team, in order to send a clear message to women that sexual harassment and violence against women are “serious and unacceptable offenses.” The Israel Women’s Network also issued a statement decrying Eshel’s inclusion on the Likud team, saying it was “spitting in the faces” of women.

But on Sunday, Mandelblit’s deputy Dina Zilber rejected Zandberg’s request, saying that while Eshel’s plea deal had included a commitment not to return to public service, his current role was political, in service of Likud rather than the state.

Liberman on Saturday reiterated that his party would not join a coalition led by Netanyahu unless his demands are met on security, immigration, and religion and state issues, in a government likely to be dominated by the religious right.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Liberman, whose base of supporters is largely made up of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, campaigned on opposing “religious coercion,” and supports public transportation and allowing mini-markets to remain open on Shabbat, in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, and passing the enlistment bill.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, telling lawmakers they must pass new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. In 2018, the court granted the government another month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January, but the Knesset was then dissolved and elections set for April 9.

Liberman said last week that he wants to be defense minister again, and also wants the Absorption Ministry for his party, and threatened that issues of religion and state could be a deal-breaker.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman speaks during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

On Thursday, the leader of ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party insisted that he would not join Netanyahu’s new government if the proposed legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army isn’t changed, heralding tough coalition-building negotiations for the premier.

Yaakov Litzman, the current deputy health minister, said all his party’s demands were coordinated with fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas. UTJ and Shas have eight Knesset seats each.

Another condition Litzman mentioned for joining the government was related to construction work on the Tel Aviv light rail and on a new bridge which has been taking place on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest. “Shabbat is an important issue, and if it won’t be taken care of, I won’t be in the government,” Litzman said, without elaborating or detailing a specific demand.

President Reuven Rivlin last Wednesday officially tasked Netanyahu with assembling a coalition to govern the 21st Knesset. Netanyahu, who will be serving as prime minister for an unprecedented fifth term, is expected to cobble together a coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.

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