Coalition deal still in works after leaders meet

PM, Liberman meet with Lapid, Bennett in talks to resolve remaining issues; negotiating teams to iron out final agreement.

Lapid and Bennett at Knesset swear in 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lapid and Bennett at Knesset swear in 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Coalition negotiations hit a dead end on Sunday night, with Likud Beytenu and Yesh Atid stuck on issues that proved difficult for them in previous talks – equality in the burden of national service and the number of ministers in the next government.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman met at the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday night  meant to resolve the remaining problems before a coalition is sworn in.
The two-hour meeting came to an end just before midnight on Sunday, although the parties' negotiating teams continued talks to formulate the final coalition agreement that went until 4 am. The PM, Bennett and Lapid were set to meet on Monday for a midday meeting.
While Lapid no longer insists on an 18-minister cabinet, he opposes a Likud Beytenu proposal for 26 portfolios.
In addition, Yesh Atid and Likud Beytenu disagree on the wording of a bill requiring all citizens to enlist in the army, or perform national service, which will be brought to a vote shortly after the government is formed.
Bennett is serving as middleman between Netanyahu and Lapid, after repairing his relationship with the prime minister.
His alliance with Lapid stands strong. According to a Bayit Yehudi source, Bennett convinced Lapid to give up on his demand for the Foreign Ministry, which is being saved for MK Avigdor Liberman, and to take the Finance Ministry – even though Bennett wanted it for himself – for the sake of reaching a coalition deal.
A coalition with more ministers would relieve some of the pressure on Netanyahu from within the Likud. Current Likud ministers will not be promoted to more prestigious positions, and it is unlikely that there will be new ministers in the party, even though some of its newer MKs received many more primary votes than did veterans.
Despite the disagreements, Bayit Yehudi showed clear signs of optimism that the coalition would be formed in the coming days, setting a central committee meeting for Wednesday evening. The Bayit Yehudi central committee is required to authorize any coalition agreement the party signs.
The central committee meeting is an indication that Netanyahu plans to present his government to President Shimon Peres and the Knesset on Tuesday or Wednesday, and that the ministers will be officially sworn in on Thursday.
Liberman said as much at a press conference in Dimona on Sunday.
“I figure that by Tuesday everything will be closed,” he said in reference to coalition talks. “Maybe we need another day to have understandings in advance and prevent friction in the future.”
At this point, Liberman added, the negotiating process is at its height and irreversible, but people attempt to make gains at the last minute.
The former foreign minister, who will return to the ministry if he is exonerated in his corruption trial, said he saw no problem with Netanyahu saving his spot, since former prime ministers David Ben- Gurion and Ehud Barak served entire terms while also acting as defense minister.
Meanwhile, as it seems highly likely that Bennett will serve as public diplomacy minister in addition to holding the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio, Likud sources expressed concern that he may become a de facto foreign minister.
A Likud source explained that Netanyahu is unlikely to be an active foreign minister, and Bennett will be able to jump on the first opportunity to take on the trappings of the job, for example involvement in US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel less than a week after the coalition is expected to be sworn in.
While many of the senior positions in the government seem to be distributed already, there are a few ministries with unclear futures.
One, for example, is the Education Ministry, which Likud Beytenu wants to hold on to for current Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar to serve another term. Yesh Atid, however, is insisting on getting the post, as education was among the central issues in its campaign. The party hopes to give the ministry to MK Shai Piron, second on Yesh Atid’s list.
Likud Beytenu expects Yesh Atid to give up the Education Ministry, since it achieved much of what it wanted in coalition talks – a government without haredi parties, a senior portfolio, a reduction in the number of ministries – although it is still demanding the portfolio.
If the Education Ministry goes to Yesh Atid, Sa’ar will receive another ministry at the same level of prestige, such as the Interior Ministry.
If that goes to Sa’ar, Piron is likely to become welfare and social services minister.