(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Shas chairman Arye Deri called on Monday for the Zionist Union to join the nascent government following the announcement of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman not to join the coalition and go to the opposition benches.
Deri expressed optimism however that even if a government was established of just 61 MKs it could be as functional if not more so than a broader government.
Deri told the haredi news website Kikar Shabbat that the government faced stiff societal challenges and that there was an opening to cooperate on such issues if the Zionist Union would join the coalition.
Speaking during a Shas faction meeting at the Knesset, Deri said that "sometimes a smaller, homogenous government is preferable to a broader government," but added that he "hopes that the government would in time be expanded."
The Shas chairman also referenced the struggle between his party and Bayit Yehudi over the Ministry of Religious Services which both parties covet but which is going to revert to Shas control after two years in the hands of Bayit Yehudi.
The national-religious party has abandoned any hope of keeping the ministry in its hands, but was still on Monday seeking to obtain a deputy ministerial appointment in the ministry, something which Deri has refused to concede.
"All components of the coalition have to overcome their differences... just like we are sure that [Bennett as] Minister of Education will behave in a fair way, we too will behave similarly in the Ministry of Religious Services."
Bayit Yehudi MK Eli Ben-Dahan who ran the ministry during the last government as the Deputy Minister said however that the party was "still fighting" to retain its foothold in the ministry.
Sources in Bayit Yehudit said however that Ben-Dahan was not interested in being a deputy minister in the ministry if there was a Shas minister above him. Ben-Dahan is thought to be seeking an appointment as Deputy Minister of Justice which has authority over the rabbinical court system which the Bayit Yehudi MK wants to retain influence over.
Shas is thought to oppose this idea as well however.
Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen, who was second only to Deri on the Shas electoral list, admitted earlier in the day that it would be hard to govern with just 61 MKs, noting in particular the problems the coalition would face in Knesset committees to advance government legislation and to block bills proposed by the opposition.
In response to Liberman's announcement, United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler described the development as a tactical step and that he would be surprised not to see Yisrael Beytenu in the coalition in a months time.
He acknowledged however that it would not be possible to have a functional government for very long if the coalition comprised just 61 MKs.
During the Yisrael Beytenu press conference, Liberman outlined several of objections to sitting in the coalition currently being formed, including a number of grievances he outlined regarding the coalition agreement between UTJ and Likud.
In particular, Liberman said that he opposed changing the conversion reform law approved by the last government, a matter of importance for Yisrael Beytenu's immigrant voters, and any attempt to change the law abolishing marriage registration districts.
Liberman also spoke at length of his opposition to clauses in the UTJ coalition deal that will reverse decisions taken during the last government to ensure that core curriculum subjects are taught in haredi schools, saying that such steps would prevent young men in the haredi sector from successfully entering the work force.
UTJ chairman MK Yaakov Litzman reacted stoically to Liberman's decision, saying simply that Liberman was at liberty not to join the government if those were his feelings.
Regarding the possible instability of a 61 MK majority government Litzman noted that Prime Minister Menachem Begin led just 62 MKs at the beginning of his government in 1977.