JERUSALEM – Faced with the grim prospect of President Obama canceling his March 20 visit to Israel due to government instability, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is racing to meet a March 16 extended deadline granted by President Shimon Peres to cobble together a stable coalition government.
Reports circulating over the past few days indicate that Netanyahu, unable to break the political pact formed by Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (HaBayit HaYehudi) that comprise 31 Knesset seats, is on the verge of signing a deal with both new political leaders that will allow him to form a majority government at the expense of haredi factions Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ).
Though Netanyahu has called for a broad coalition that would include the haredi parties, he called for early elections late last year after it became apparent that both Shas and UTJ would not vote in favor of proposed government budget cuts or for an overhaul of the nation’s military draft laws. These issues are expected to remain hot-button topics in the new Knesset.
Lapid and Bennett reiterated this week that they would sit in the government with the haredi factions if the latter agreed to the principle of “sharing the economic and social burden,” a code that inspired many voters to cast their ballots for Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi. “Sharing the burden” basically obligates the haredi community to institute part of the nation’s core educational curriculum (highlighted by English and math courses) into yeshiva classrooms; dramatically increase the number of yeshiva students into joining the IDF or doing alternative national service; and enter the national workforce.
As of this week, UTJ’s rabbinic leaders are steadfastly refusing a series of army draft and educational compromises offered by Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu combined party. And Shas leader Aryeh Deri accused the prime minister of “having cold feet” for bowing to the demands of Lapid and Bennett. For his part, Bennett this week received a formal letter from prominent religious Zionist rabbis endorsing his negotiating stance with the government.
If Likud-Beiteinu signs off on a coalition deal with Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi, Netanyahu’s new governing coalition would likely consist of a relatively stable government of 68 Knesset seats, which includes Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua Party. Livni, a former foreign minister whose new party won six seats in the January elections, agreed to join a Netanyahu-led government several weeks ago.
According to Yediot Aharonot and Yisrael Hayom, Lapid, Bennett and Netanyahu must agree on the distribution of senior ministerial postings in the government before any coalition agreement is signed. Yisrael Hayom reported that Bennett wants to become minister of finance while two of his senior party leaders would be appointed to head the ministries of Construction and Housing and Religious Services.
Lapid has told Netanyahu that he wants to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is also campaigning for senior Yesh Atid figure Rabbi Shai Piron to be appointed the new minister of education. As the second largest party in the Knesset, Yesh Atid is expected to control at least one other key ministry.