The Likud will begin marathon negotiations with five potential coalition partners at the Knesset on Thursday, after President Reuven Rivlin formally tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday night with forming Israel’s 34th government.
Likud negotiators are expected to meet all day with representatives of Kulanu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu, and United Torah Judaism, in an effort to form a new governing coalition by Independence Day Eve (April 22). The holiday coincides with the deadline for forming a coalition after the likeliest candidate receives a 28-day mandate from the president.
If Netanyahu does not form a coalition by then, he can ask Rivlin for another 14 days, but the president would be under no obligation to grant it.
Standing beside Netanyahu at the President’s Residence, Rivlin called upon the prime minister to “build a government that would be stable and as inclusive as possible.”
He said the next government and Knesset will have the critical missions of healing relations with the United States, returning stability to the political system, and mending rifts inside Israeli society.
“We have endured a difficult election period,” Rivlin said. “From every direction, things were said that ought not to have been said in a Jewish and democratic state. Fanning the flames serves no one. The fire does not only heat, it threatens to engulf in flames. Today is the time to begin to heal these wounds.”
Netanyahu said he was emotional about receiving the mandate to form his fourth government, saying it felt like it was his first time. He promised to put the election behind him and focus on what unites all Israelis.
Unlike in his campaign speeches, the prime minister spoke about how he intends to seek peace with the Palestinians.
He said he wants good relations with the US, but then immediately added that Israel would work to prevent a bad nuclear deal from being reached between the six world powers and Iran.
“Real peace can be achieved only if Israel remains strong and stable,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister appeared to reach out to Kulanu when he equated in his speech the need to improve Israel’s security and its socioeconomic well-being. Taking a page out of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon’s book, he vowed that the state budget, which must be passed soon, would “lower prices and weaken monopolies which are stifling competition.”
Bayit Yehudi officials noted that by speaking against monopolies and not against the Palestinians, Netanyahu appeared to be pushing them away and perhaps even laying the groundwork for a national unity government with the Zionist Union.
The officials noted that in private talks, Netanyahu had made progress with the parties that could be part of a unity government – Kulanu, Shas, and UTJ – and not with Bayit Yehudi, which would likely be excluded from such a coalition.
A source close to Netanyahu responded by reiterating that “Labor is not a possible coalition partner” and saying that progress was made with the parties that are easier to reach deals with.
Likud sources denied claims by Bayit Yehudi that Netanyahu repeatedly promised party leader Naftali Bennett one of the top three portfolios – Defense, Finance, or Foreign Affairs. Furious Bayit Yehudi officials accused Netanyahu of reneging on the deal.
“Even two days before the election, Netanyahu said Bayit Yehudi would be his senior coalition partner,” a Bayit Yehudi official said.
“The Likud is backing out of promises from before the election. We won’t be signing with them any time soon.”
Yisrael Beytenu officials are also upset with Netanyahu, because the prime minister wants to keep Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman is demanding the Defense portfolio, even though his party won only six seats in the election.
Likud officials said Yisrael Beytenu would likely be given two portfolios, including the Immigration and Absorption portfolio, which would remain held by Yisrael Beytenu MK Sofa Landver.
Liberman’s No. 2 in the party, MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, will apparently not be given a portfolio but may become a deputy minister.
Kahlon denied reports that, in a meeting with Netanyahu, he gave up on several of his demands, including the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee and the construction planning authority that is part of the Interior Ministry.
He said negotiations had not begun and urged his supporters not to take seriously what the press reports.
“I heard tonight that instead of working on how to solve the housing shortage and lower the cost of living, someone thinks it is more urgent to allocate the tools for solving those problems in a political and socioeconomically senseless way,” Kahlon wrote on Facebook.