Likud Beytenu, the Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid reached the final stages of coalition talks Wednesday night, with Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett negotiating to break the impasse between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
After days of arguing over the Education and Interior portfolios, the number of ministries in the government, the Knesset Finance Committee, and changing Hatnua's coalition deal, the parties reached an apparent compromise brokered by Bennett on Monday evening, meeting late at night to iron out the final details.
Shai Piron of Yesh Atid will be Education Minister, while the Likud's Gideon Sa'ar will be Interior Minister. The government will have 22 ministers, including Netanyahu, meaning that the table added for the last 30-minister government, that was removed this week, can remain dismantled.
The Bayit Yehudi will hold the Knesset Finance Committee. In addition, Hatnua's coalition agreement remained the same, and the party has two ministers – Tzipi Livni as Justice and Amir Peretz as Environmental Protection.
Lapid will be Finance Minister, as expected, and candidates for the Interior Ministry Meir Cohen and Yael German will be Welfare Minister and Health Minister, respectively. Ya'akov Peri will be Science Minister and Ofer Shelach, a former military reporter, will be Deputy Defense Minister.
Bennett will be Vice Premier and have three portfolios. He will be the Economy and Trade Minister, a new name for the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio, and have authority over the Diaspora and Jerusalem Ministry as well as an expanded Religious Services Ministry that includes conversion, the chief rabbinate and supervision of yeshivas. Bayit Yehudi MK Eli Ben Dahan will be Deputy Religious Services Ministry with all of the responsibilities of a minister.
A senior Bayit Yehudi source emphasized that the party fought to get the Diaspora portfolio, because it sees Israel's connection to Jewish communities around the world as essential. In addition, the party made sure to put education for Jewish tradition in the coalition's guidelines.
Bayit Yehudi's Uri Ariel, a former Yesh Council secretary-general, will become Housing and Construction Minister, which will include responsibility for the Israel Lands Authority, even though Netanyahu had promised it to former Welfare Minister Moshe Kachlon. In that vein, the party demanded that the coalition guidelines include support for settlements of all kinds.
While Yisrael Beytenu MKs' positions are already decided, most of the Likud ministers' fates remain to be seen. While they will continue to be ministers, it is unclear who will get the Communications, Infrastructure, Strategic Affairs or Home Front Ministries – Gilad Erdan, Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat or Yuval Steinitz, and which of the party's younger generation will be deputy ministers. Israel Katz is expected to remain Transportation Minister and Moshe Ya'alon will be Defense Minister. Yuli Edelstein will serve as Knesset Speaker, and Tzachi Hanegbi is the leading candidate for coalition chairman.
The government is expected to have only four female ministers – Livni, Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, Livnat, and German - and three ministers of Sephardic descent –Cohen, Shalom, and Peretz.
The three parties' coalition negotiating teams were working on the final agreement at press time Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning, the Bayit Yehudi Central Committee is expected to vote on the agreement, in accordance with the party's by-laws, and Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu will sign it later that day. The government will be sworn in at the Knesset next week.
The agreement is expected to easily pass a Bayit Yehudi Central Committee vote.
"We are very happy with this deal. We will be able to focus on implementing our campaign promises in regards to the economy, housing, religion and connect with Jews from the diaspora. I expect the vote will be close to unanimous," central committee member Jeremy Saltan said.
On Wednesday afternoon, going to new elections seemed like a realistic option, with Yesh Atid and Likud Beytenu each claiming the Education Ministry.
At noon, a senior Likud source sent out a notice that "if there is no breakthrough in negotiations with Lapid in the next few hours and he does not back down from his exaggerated demands, we will start speedy negotiations with the haredi parties."
Soon after, Yesh Atid said they will not give up the Education Ministry, and they are fighting a battle for Israel's future image.
"Presenting Yesh Atid as extortionists is twisting the truth. Yesh Atid agreed to reduce the number of portfolios it deserves in order to decrease the amount of ministers in the government," a party official said.
As the rhetoric grew more hostile, Bennett traveled to Lapid's Tel Aviv home to work out a deal. After that, he went to Jerusalem, and spoke to Netanyahu. Finally, he presented the compromise that the sides have since accepted: Piron as Education Minister, Yesh Atid will give up the Interior Ministry, Hatnua will keep its second portfolio, Likud gets an additional deputy ministership and Bayit Yehudi gets the Finance Committee.
Sources close to the negotiations say that Bennett told Lapid if he does not accept the compromise, he will tell Netanyahu that he's willing to join a government with the haredi parties. The Bayit Yehudi leader then told Netanyahu that if he doesn't accept the proposal, he and Lapid won't join the coalition and there will be a new election.
Earlier Wednesday, Meretz MK Issawi Freij proposed a bill to shorten the amount of time allotted for negotiations to 21 days.
"The current situation is intolerable and harmful to society and the market," Freij said. "To put the entire country on hold in order to play negotiating games is irresponsible."
According to the Meretz MK, Netanyahu is busy with "media spins and fights over portfolios" instead of dealing with the deficit or passing a budget.