The Likud’s negotiating team met with haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) as coalition talks continued Sunday, and UTJ continued taking a hard line on religious issues.
Both UTJ and Yisrael Beytenu, who have clashing demands in the talks, have said they would be willing to block a coalition from being formed and lead the country to elections again this year if their needs are not met.
Likud negotiator and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin congratulated UTJ for growing to eight seats, and pointed out that they were the first party to sign with Likud in the last coalition, expressing hope that it will happen again.
“We see them as loyal partners. We worked excellently for a long time in the previous government, and we knew how to overcome disagreements. I’m sure we will reach solutions that will bring us to a stable government this time, as well,” he said.
UTJ co-leader MK Moshe Gafni was less sanguine than Levin, saying “over half of the Israeli public voted in favor of Jewish tradition, Yisrael Beytenu exempted. It won’t be the same as in the last term.
“These negotiations could be short, fast,” Gafni added. “They could also be long and we won’t sign. Whatever happens, happens.”
Yisrael Beytenu has demanded that the coalition commit to passing a bill to require haredim to enlist in the IDF and to liberalize the state-backed institution of conversion to Judaism.
Shas and UTJ want anyone who seeks to study Torah full-time to be able to do so and not serve in the army. UTJ is also demanding that no public works be done on Saturdays. The party also wants greater stipends for yeshiva students, and a plan to build housing for haredim.
MK Oded Forrer from Yisrael Beytenu defended the party following Gafni’s remarks, writing on Facebook that the party is “for Jewish tradition and for a right-wing, nationalist government, but we will strongly oppose a halachic state.”
“We believe in a tolerant Judaism… We are asking to promote matters that the prime minister said that he supports in the past,” Forrer wrote. “We will not allow religious coercion in the next right-wing government.”
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who has consistently demanded the Defense Ministry for himself in recent weeks, also wants the Intelligence Ministry to be shut down. The intelligence portfolio was broken off from the Defense Ministry in order to have more high-level positions to give out. However, the party’s official statement was that they will not discuss portfolios until matters of policy are worked out.
A non-religious demand from UTJ is a NIS 250 million increase in the health budget, with party co-chariman Ya’acov Litzman continuing in his role as Deputy Health Minister. Litzman proposed that half of the increase come from the regular budget and another half come from increasing the health tax by .5%, Channel 12 reported.
Negotiations began last week, but religious parties – Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) included – did not want to conduct talks during Passover.
Levin said before the meeting with Shas that Sunday was is the official start of coalition negotiations, and they are starting with the largest potential partners.
“We had a good partnership with Shas for a long time, including in the previous term,” Levin said. “I hope very much that we will succeed in having a businesslike negotiation. It requires patience and will take time. The talks will not end today or tomorrow.”
The deadline for coalition talks is May 15, unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks for an extension, which can be up to two weeks long.
Levin added, “We promised the voter to establish a right-wing government with our partners from the previous term, and the goal is to reach a result that will ensure a stable coalition.
Former minister Ariel Atias of Shas, who is leading the party’s negotiating team, called his party “the most loyal member of the last government,” and pointed out that it supported Netanyahu in the election.
“We want to keep our promises and wave the right-wing, traditional flags. We don’t need ultimatums; we don’t need threats or manipulations to get our demands,” Atias added.
Among those demands, a source in the talks said, were three full ministries, the Interior Ministry and the Negev and Galilee Ministry – which they consider to be one portfolio – the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Housing and Construction Ministry.
Even though Shas leader Arye Deri made a campaign promise to demand the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to help French-speaking immigrants, his negotiating team did not ask for the portfolio.
Also Sunday, Netanyahu said he backs Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to remain in his role, a near-guarantee that Edelstein will be able to be Speaker for a third term.
Edelstein previously said that he would like to remain Knesset Speaker and Netanyahu was seen as likely to accede to the request, as there is stiff competition in the Likud over the ministerial portfolios that will remain after coalition talks.
The Knesset has to vote to approve Edelstein’s appointment. Traditionally, there is only one candidate for the job and the Speaker is voted in unanimously.
Edelstein will soon be tied with Kadish Luz for most terms in the position. Luz was also Knesset Speaker for three consecutive terms; no Knesset Speaker has served three non-consecutive terms.
Luz, a member of Labor forebear Mapai, was Knesset Speaker in 1959-1969. Edelstein has been Knesset Speaker since 2013, and therefore will only break Luz’s record in terms of years if this Knesset lasts for four years.