JERUSALEM – Less than a week before President Obama’s arrival in Israel for a much-anticipated visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was working round the clock to present a new coalition government to President Shimon Peres and the Knesset.
As we went to press Tuesday evening we learned that senior Likud Party members told Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid that if he did not finalize a coalition agreement with Netanyahu by Wednesday night, Netanyahu would ask haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) to join the government in place of Yesh Atid.
A standoff earlier this week between Netanyahu and Lapid over control of the powerful Ministry of Education portfolio threatens to scuttle a coalition deal between Israel’s two largest party blocs. Without Lapid’s participation in a new government, its long-term stability would be in question.
During a stormy meeting earlier this week between the two party leaders, Lapid demanded that Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Shai Piron replace Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar as minister of education. Sa’ar, who has been widely praised by both the teachers union and school principals for upgrading the nation’s educational curriculum, controls the ministry’s annual multibillion-dollar budget, which includes significant funding for haredi schools.
Lapid has publicly acknowledged that he would cut funding to those haredi schools that refuse to teach core curriculum subjects like math and English. Netanyahu wants Sa’ar to continue in his post and preserve the current haredi schools’ funding even though Shas and UTJ will likely not be part of the new government if a deal is struck with Lapid.
As late as Tuesday Netanyahu was offering to rotate the education minister’s post between Sa’ar and Piron during the hoped-for four-year government course, or hand control of the Interior Ministry (long run by Shas) to Yesh Atid.
Other unresolved issues included Lapid’s desire to decrease the number of ministers from the more than thirty currently serving to twenty. Lapid also wants less than a dozen vice ministers to serve in the new coalition.
HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett, another prospective coalition partner, is reportedly demanding control of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, which during the course of the last government, was headed by MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ. That committee chair greatly influences key aspects of the government’s budget and can veto funding for various programs that play integral roles in certain sectors of Israeli society.
If the current political wrangling is ironed out, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu joint list (thirty-one seats) is expected to include the centrist Yesh Atid (nineteen seats), the religious Zionist HaBayit HaYehudi (twelve seats), the center-left, Tzipi Livni-led Hatnua (six seats), and possibly the centrist, Shaul Mofaz-led Kadima (two seats).
Mofaz, originally rumored to become the minister of welfare and social services, was purportedly told by members of Likud’s negotiating team that a smaller government would mean that the smaller, and thus junior, parties in the new coalition would not be granted a ministerial portfolio. If Mofaz accedes to this reported policy and nevertheless joins the coalition, Netanyahu would have a solid seventy-seat majority in the 120- member Knesset.
The direction of the negotiations is apparently upsetting several key Likud members, who publicly rebuked Netanyahu on Monday for offering to surrender important ministerial positions to the potential new coalition partners. These party members are also expressing disappointment that Netanyahu seems to be reserving the remaining portfolios for older Likud veterans instead of younger faction members who received more votes than their older colleagues in the pre-election Likud primaries.
MK Tzipi Hotovely, Likud’s top female vote-getter in the primaries, told Yisrael Hayom that Netanyahu was “mistaken for following the path of ‘old’ politics by reserving ministerial posts for elder Likud Party veterans. The voting public will look at the Likud list and how the postings are being distributed and see that the party has refused to refresh itself. They’ll say that if the Likud Party isn’t interested in new faces, why was it necessary to have hard-fought primaries to begin with? Voters will lose faith in the process.”
MK Danny Danon, mentioned as a possible candidate for one of the vice ministerial posts, said, “The prime minister is obligated to give ministerial portfolios to the younger members of the Likud, who did well in the primaries.”
For their part, Shas and UTJ used harsh rhetoric at Netanyahu and Bennett for presumably excluding them from the new coalition. The haredi parties accused the prime minister and political newcomer of wanting to “destroy” the Torah world. News reports circulated that Shas and UTJ would actively support the dismantling of settlements in Judea and Samaria if Lapid and Bennett, anchoring a new government policy, implemented fiscal austerity measures resulting in hundreds of millions of shekels being trimmed from the state funding of haredi elementary and high school yeshivot.
Several prestigious religious Zionist rabbis also reproved Bennett and Lapid for rejecting Shas and UTJ. Yeshivat Har Hamor heads Rabbi Tzvi Tau, Rabbi Amiel Sternberg and Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, in a full-page ad in Tuesday’s Yisrael Hayom, wrote that “it is forbidden to harm Torah students, and funds previously earmarked for yeshivas should not be cut. Diminishing the stature of Torah undermines the state of Israel.”
UTJ Knesset member Rabbi Yisrael Eichler told the Kikar HaShabbat haredi news website that Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett would be “punished by the Almighty for their deeds.” His remarks drew criticism from Israeli haredi pop singer and producer Yishai Lapidot for being “ridiculous, unnecessary and out of line.”
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