Crunch time in coalition talks

Time is running out for Netanyahu to form a government.

Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich, head of the National Union faction of the United Right-Wing Parties (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich, head of the National Union faction of the United Right-Wing Parties
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Union of Right-Wing Parties co-leader Bezalel Smotrich slipped and fell near his home in Kedumim on Friday, injuring a disc in his back.
He stayed in bed all weekend but still managed to come later in the week to the Knesset, where he joked about the impact of his injury on coalition talks.
“Now I really can’t bend to anyone, and I mean it,” Smotrich said.
Smotrich has another weekend to heal, because the Likud intends to reach a deal with his party last, due to demands by Smotrich that Likud officials called outrageous.
But time is running out for Netanyahu. If he fails to form a government by Wednesday night, President Reuven Rivlin can give his mandate to build a coalition to any MK but Netanyahu, and his political career would likely be over.
Then again, the deadline has its loopholes.
All Netanyahu has to do by then is tell Rivlin “I succeeded in forming a government.”
He can technically continue negotiations for another weekend. The real deadline is the following Monday, because the cabinet must be presented to the Knesset within a week after Netanyahu visits Rivlin, and coalition agreements must be submitted 48 hours before they come to a vote.
That means Likud ministers are unlikely to find out their portfolios until Wednesday, June 5. There is an election in the Knesset for state comptroller on June 3, and the last thing Netanyahu needs is disgruntled Likud MKs taking out their revenge on him by opposing his handpicked candidate, Matanyahu Engelman.
It won’t be the first time Netanyahu waited until the last minute. In 2009, Hollywood producer and Netanyahu cigar provider Arnon Milchan came to the Knesset to negotiate between Netanyahu and his then-Likud rival Silvan Shalom. In 2015, paramedics came to the Knesset to heal Likud ministerial aspirant MK Ayoub Kara of his disappointment-induced fainting spell.
THIS TIME around, Smotrich is expected to be the toughest nut to crack, not a minister in the Likud. Once the Knesset completes the passage of the cabinet expansion bill Monday night, Netanyahu will have 16 ministerial posts for Likudniks among his cabinet’s 26.
A Likud source said Netanyahu has begun missing his defeated nemeses Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who were a thorn in his side but whose views were less extreme on both diplomatic issues and matters of religion and state.
“Smotrich is Bennett on speed,” the Likud source said. “The URP is tougher on religion and state than the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).”
It doesn’t help Smotrich win favor with the Likud team that he is insisting on the Justice portfolio that Likud negotiating team head Yariv Levin is saving for himself.
Sources in the URP say it is only fair that the portfolios held by Bayit Yehudi in the previous coalition stay with the five-seat URP, which includes Bayit Yehudi, especially if Yisrael Beytenu gets the Defense Ministry with five seats and Kulanu gets the Finance portfolio with four.
“This is a continuation coalition, so it only makes sense that everyone keeps their jobs,” a URP source said. “If Levin wants to change that, he hasn’t presented us with an alternative.”
The Likud also charges that both URP and United Torah Judaism are asking for too much money for their pet causes.
“If the coalition deal gives everyone all that they’ve asked for, the document won’t be worth the paper it’s written on,” a source in the Likud said.
Finance Ministry director-general Shai Babad and budget department head Shaul Meridor were sent by the Likud to the coalition partners to explain to them why their demands are exaggerated.
URP officials deny that their demands are in the sky; the demands are just more practical than those of other parties. Even on diplomatic issues, party officials say, they are not demanding anything too controversial.
They didn’t ask to resettle Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip or Homesh in northern Samaria, which were evacuated in 2005. But they did ask to make it legal to go to northern Samaria, to maintain all of Area C and permit the state to provide water, electricity and garbage collection to large outposts built by the state on state land.
“All we are doing is not playing games,” a URP source said.
But the Likud thinks otherwise, and did not schedule negotiations with the party this week. Netanyahu hasn’t met with Smotrich since May 12, when he tried meeting solo with URP co-chairman Rafi Peretz, who promptly called Smotrich to join them mid-meeting.
IF SMOTRICH is the bad guy for the Likud, the good guy is Shas’s Ariel Attias, a former construction minister who heads the party’s negotiating team and is expected to head Shas after Arye Deri.
Attias has been working on a compromise on haredi conscription acceptable to both Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman and the Gerrer Rebbe, 80-year-old Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the rabbi of UTJ head Ya’acov Litzman.
The easiest party will be Kulanu, whose leader, Moshe Kahlon, did not even bother forming a negotiating team after leading the party from 10 seats to four in the April 9 election.
“We will just take the last agreement, cut everything in half and take out all the parts about protecting democracy,” said a Kulanu MK, who was not joking.
The MK said that, unlike Smotrich, who can’t bend, Kahlon knows his party is bent out of shape.
If all the prospective coalition parties were as modest, it would have been easier for Netanyahu to form a government well ahead of next week’s coalition crunch time.