Formal coalition negotiations began at the end of April following the end of the Passover holiday, presenting the Likud negotiating team with a daunting challenge: how to meet the demands of the potential coalition partners, in terms of both policy and portfolios, while at the same time satisfying Likud Knesset members’ wishes for plum ministerial positions.
A week after the April 9 election, President Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with cobbling together a working coalition. He has three weeks to present his government but, with substantive talks only getting under way after the Passover holiday, it looks like the Likud negotiators will require the two-week extension permitted to complete the task, creating a deadline of May 29.
In the unlikely event that Netanyahu fails to form a coalition within the allotted time period, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, will be given a shot at assembling a government.
Parties representing 65 MKs from right-wing and religious parties, along with the centrist Kulanu, recommended to Rivlin that Netanyahu form a 4th consecutive government – his fifth in total.
In addition to the Likud with 35 seats, the coalition Netanyahu wants to form will be made up of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, with eight seats each; the new Union of Right-Wing Parties (5);Yisrael Beiteinu (5); and Kulanu (4).
Netanyahu is keen to include all six parties in his government to provide a semblance of stability and prevent a narrow majority that will be at the mercy of a single disgruntled party threatening to quit.
Even ahead of its formation, the coalition was being dubbed the “annexation coalition” – in a reference to Netanyahu’s unprecedented election promise to annex West Bank settlements – and the “immunity coalition,” as all the parties are expected to pledge to remain in the government even if the prime minister is indicted on corruption charges.
After initial talks between the parties and Likud representatives, it became clear that one of the main stumbling blocks was the issue of religion and state.
The ultra-Orthodox parties seek to limit drafting yeshiva students into the army. Senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni threatened that his party would rather fight another election than back down on its demands for mass military service exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students.
“We need a normal enlistment law with the principle that whoever wants to learn Torah in the framework of ‘Torah is his profession’ must be allowed to continue to do so,” Gafni said.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman, who campaigned on the slogan “Right-wing and Secular,” has vowed to block any amendments to the draft bill for enlisting the ultra-Orthodox, which was drawn up when he served as defense minister and has still not passed into law.
The ultra-Orothodox factions proposed what they described as a compromise that would leave Liberman’s draft bill unaltered, but would add a declaration stating that any yeshiva student who wanted to continue studying Torah would be able to do so.
The ultra-Orthodox also wish to pass a Basic Law: The Value of Torah Study. To date, the High Court of Justice has rejected ultra-Orthodox military exemptions because they conflicted with the value of equality. The ultra-Orthodox believe that by passing The Value of Torah Study as a basic law with a special status, the High Court of Justice will not be able to overturn exemption clauses for yeshiva students.
The list of demands from the Union of Right-Wing Parties included the justice and education portfolios as well as a host of policy commitments to annex West Bank settlements as well as an Immunity Law, which would allow evading indictment for MKs, ministers and, critically, the prime minister. The party also wants measures to curtail the powers of the courts, the attorney general and the state comptroller.
In February, Israel’s attorney general announced that he intended to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, pending a hearing. The prime minister, who maintains his innocence, is under no legal obligation to resign if indicted.
The Likud is reportedly pushing to restore the law granting immunity to Knesset members facing prosecution on criminal charges. The law was amended in 2005 following criticism that it protected corrupt MKs from prosecution.
Ahead of the unveiling of US President Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century,” – expected in June – the Union of Right-Wing Parties also seeks to reach an agreement in principle with the Likud over a written commitment that Israel will make no West Bank withdrawals in the context of the American peace plan.
MK Yair Lapid, who is second on Blue and White’s list, said that the list of demands that was presented by the Union of Right-Wing Parties proved that control over the government was shifting away from the Likud into the Kahanists’ hands.
“Everything is in the list of demands. Full annexation, repealing disengagement, stripping the court of its powers, dismantling the Civil Administration and ending Israel’s democratic structure,” said Lapid. “The remuneration? An immunity bill for Bibi. That’s a good deal for them, and it’s good for him, too. It’s awful for the citizens of Israel.”
The talks between Likud and Kulanu covered the possibility of a merger between the two parties. Kulanu is demanding that it retain control over the finance and economy portfolios in the next government, and that it receive 10% representation in the Likud’s institutions.
The incoming government could include as many as 26 ministers in an effort to satisfy the demand for cabinet portfolios from coalition partners and from within the prime minister’s own Likud party.
Likud members are adamant about keeping three senior portfolios within the party: the communications, justice and the public security portfolios, the latter two having oversight over the law enforcement agencies. Likud officials indicated that the most likely candidate for the next justice minister would be the Likud’s outgoing tourism minister Yair Levin, who has made it clear that he wants a radical reduction in the powers of the judiciary.
Retired Supreme Court justice, Elyakim Rubinstein, said that he was truly alarmed by the calls to introduce changes to the justice system.
“The justice system wasn’t perfect, but it was the pride of the State of Israel,” he told Kan radio. “The people who have been tapped for justice minister haven’t spoken about fixing the justice system, but about breaking it.”
Assuming the coalition partners overcome their differences, in a matter of months Benjamin Netanyahu will officially become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding father.
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