Political Affairs: The coalition waiting game

Liberman is the key because he is the only party leader who is unwilling to give the newly emboldened haredi bloc everything it asks for

PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu face off at the President’s residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday night (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu face off at the President’s residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday night
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
It has already been more than two weeks since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received President Reuven Rivlin’s official mandate to form the next government, yet no progress whatsoever has been made.
There was talk at first that Netanyahu would try to expedite the process. After all, he does not trust Rivlin, who technically does not have to extend that mandate from the initial date of May 15 to the final deadline permitted by law, May 29.
But then came Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day. And Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Independence Day are around the corner.
So it is looking like Netanyahu will continue his tradition of not even really trying to form a coalition until just ahead of the final deadline.
Then again, perhaps there are negotiations taking place secretly, behind the scenes.
In February 2003, while official teams of negotiators from several parties were meeting daily at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah hotel, Ehud Olmert secretly built Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government via negotiations at his Jerusalem home between Shinui head Yosef Lapid and National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev.
In 2006, secret talks took place between Olmert and Amir Peretz at a private home in Tel Aviv.
This time around, nightly news broadcasts reported Tuesday night that there was a complete disconnect between Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, even though they had actually met a few hours earlier.
When Netanyahu entered the Knesset plenum for the swearing-in ceremony, he saw Liberman and told him: “Avigdor, we need to talk,” a former MK who was there overheard him say.
The former MK then saw Netanyahu and Liberman meet in the back room behind the plenum, looking comfortable together. Netanyahu and Liberman held a longer meeting Wednesday at the Prime Minister’s Office that they said focused on “security policies and maintaining the status quo on matters of religion and state.”
LIBERMAN IS the key to the coalition’s formation, not just because he has five seats but also because he is the only party leader who is unwilling to give the newly emboldened haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bloc everything it asks for.
Under Naftali Bennett, Bayit Yehudi stood up to the haredim. But now Bayit Yehudi is part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, whose cochairman Bezalel Smotrich visited the Gerrer Rebbe on Passover and promised to fight together with United Torah Judaism and Shas as a bloc of 21 MKs against Liberman’s five.
In demands that would have never been considered under Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, Smotrich has asked for “canceling obtrusive secular coercion” and “permitting gender separation.” UTJ is demanding a deputy minister whose main role would be ensuring that no work is done on Shabbat by government-controlled bodies, authorities and institutions.
MKs in Kulanu who opposed religious coercion, such as Rachel Azaria, Michael Oren and Merav Ben-Ari, are no longer in the Knesset, rendering Kulanu silent on the issue.
In Liberman’s first speech after the election, he vowed to not change a single comma in the controversial haredi conscription bill that the Supreme Court ruled must be passed immediately. He said he would rather go to another election than change the bill that the Defense Ministry drafted at his behest, taking into account the needs of the IDF.
Two possible compromises have emerged since the Netanyahu-Liberman meetings.
The haredi newspaper Mishpacha reported that Liberman would agree to minor changes in the bill that the IDF would authorize. The status quo on matters of religion and state would be maintained, and the haredi parties would give up their demand to entrench the right to study Torah in a Basic Law.
According to another version, the existing conscription bill would be passed with the help of the opposition, while haredi MKs vote against it or abstain, and Yisrael Beytenu MKs would be given freedom to vote according to their conscience on matters of religion and state throughout the new term in the Knesset.
Relying on the opposition could be risky, even though Yesh Atid backed the bill in the past. Sources in Blue and White said they see “cracks in the coalition on the conscription bill” and they intend to take advantage of them, as part of Yesh Atid leader turned Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid’s promise to “make the coalition’s life hell.”
“The opposition is determined,” a Blue and White official said. “To challenge the coalition, we already submitted that moral and just bills would be embarrassing to oppose. We have a larger party in the opposition than there has been in decades. The ruling party is no bigger than we are. The public did not choose the vision of the Likud any more than the vision of Blue and White.”
Besides conscription, Blue and White officials noted that Liberman has demanded the passage of the original compromise on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and other fault lines between Liberman and Smotrich.
But another source, who spoke candidly to members of the opposition this week, found them more frustrated than ever because “they know there’s not much they can do,” and “they felt this election was our big chance to beat Bibi, and it didn’t happen.”
Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich not even bothering to get back from abroad in time for the swearing-in was seen as symbolic of the opposition’s desperation, because she had been one of the top fighters in the opposition in the past.
The reports of the Likud already making a serious effort to break up Blue and White were not true. Netanyahu’s disgraced former aide Natan Eshel will not be able to shift new haredi woman MK Omer Yankelevich from Blue and White to the Likud.
New Ethiopian MK Gadi Yevarkan (Blue and White), who touched Jews around the world by kissing his mother’s feet in the entrance to the Knesset ahead of his swearing-in ceremony, is not going to betray his political patron, Moshe Ya’alon, and go back to the Likud, where he ran for Knesset a decade ago.
Such leaks were intended to put pressure on Liberman and Smotrich by pretending that the Likud had alternatives to them. The truth is the Likud has no alternative to the 65 MKs on the Right and needs every party in the bloc except the four-MK Kulanu.
But the leaks show that at least the Likud is pretending to try. Four years ago, Likud negotiators were advised to try to talk to MK Orly Levy-Abecassis about taking a socioeconomic portfolio and breaking up Yisrael Beytenu, but the Likud negotiators laughed off the idea, an idea that seems even smarter now in retrospect.
IT IS now a foregone conclusion that Liberman will be back at the Defense Ministry. The fact that the official statement from the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu said Netanyahu and Liberman discussed “security policies” reiterated that message.
Liberman wants to go back to the ministry and work with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, whom he appointed but never got to work with, after previous chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot often stopped Liberman’s initiatives. It will also be easier for Liberman to do his job with his constant critic Bennett out of the way.
The main portfolios Netanyahu will insist on keeping for the Likud are the sensitive Justice and Communications ministries. The head of the Likud’s negotiating team, outgoing Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, would not be going through such headaches, if he did not know for sure that he would be receiving his dream job of justice minister.
Netanyahu cannot afford to have the ministry in the hands of someone less loyal to him, while his criminal investigations are progressing. The same holds true of the Communications portfolio, which Netanyahu insisted on keeping last time, an insistence that led to the investigation of Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair, and to Netanyahu’s indictment for bribery.
Likud ministers who talked this week about closing KAN, the recently created public broadcasting corporation, appeared to be competing for the post. Possible ministers for the post include Ze’ev Elkin and Amir Ohana.
Another possibility for Ohana could be replacing Danny Danon as ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Danon is set to leave his post, and it is expected to be filled by a current Likud MK, because too many of them are expecting portfolios.
Ohana is a rising star who enjoys Netanyahu’s confidence. He is an attorney, speaks perfect English and is a gay father, which would endear him to the international community.
One portfolio demand remains unexplained: The Union of Right-Wing Parties has demanded the Diaspora Affairs portfolio for its cochairman Rafi Peretz, who has little to no experience dealing with Diaspora Jews.
“They requested the portfolio in order to kill the Kotel deal and end connections with Reform and Conservative Jewry,” said Blue and White MK Elazar Stern, who described himself as a longtime friend of Peretz. “If they get it, it would be a disaster. It would prove Netanyahu really doesn’t care or, even worse, has given up on Diaspora Jewry.”
But URP’s request for the post might just have been what is called in Hebrew “a goat” – an obstacle put in the room just to gain credit for removing it later on.
There is still plenty of time for such goats, while the coalition waiting game goes on.