Likud, Shas deny October deal that scuttled the possiblity of a Livni-led government.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
The Likud formally began building a new coalition on Wednesday with a hopeful prediction from the head of the party's negotiating team, MK Gideon Sa'ar, that the coalition would survive the Knesset's entire four-and-a-half year term.
No prime minister has lasted four years since Yitzhak Shamir, who served from 1986 to 1992. Kadima MKs predict that a narrow right-wing government would be lucky to last eight months.
"The coalition can last until November 2013 if we behave intelligently," Sa'ar said.
The Likud's team met separately at Ramat Gan's Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel with representatives of its three largest prospective coalition partners if a national-unity government is not formed: Israel Beiteinu (15 seats), Shas (11), and United Torah Judaism (5). The parties took turns issuing demands on policies, platforms and portfolios.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai denied allegations from Kadima that it had reached an agreement with Likud in October that prevented the party from joining the government that Kadima leader Tzipi Livni was trying to form at the time. Shas was reportedly promised the Interior and Construction/Housing portfolios in the deal.
"Get it through your heads," Yishai told reporters at the hotel.
"There is no agreement with Netanyahu. There is no document. We are beginning today with a clean slate."
MK Stas Meseznikov, the head of Israel Beiteinu's negotiating team, seemingly confirmed Yishai's claim, when he said he had received a commitment from Likud faction chair Gideon Sa'ar that no deal had been made with Shas.
The main issues of contention between Shas and Israel Beiteinu are electoral reforms and civil unions for couples seeking to be legally recognized without a religious ceremony. Yishai referred to civil unions as "assimilation unions," while Israel Beiteinu said Shas must not be allowed veto power on the issue.
"The main problem right now is finding a solution for 350,000 people [who cannot marry in Israel] who deserve full benefits," Meseznikov said. "We made progress in the talks with Likud on issues like fighting terrorism and helping immigrants, but there are issues on which there has been no progress and that is a problem."
Likud wrapped up the talks by meeting United Torah Judaism representatives for what the ultra-Orthodox party called "difficult" talks.
"There are problems with the issues of civil unions and conversions that we cannot accept," UTJ chairman Ya'acov Litzman said after the meeting. "We will consult with our rabbis and see what we can do."
Litzman said that the UTJ representatives also raised the issues of poverty, housing and yeshiva education, adding that "here and there the subject of portfolios was also raised, but only in the margins of the discussions."
Sa'ar summed up the meetings with UTJ, Shas and Israel Beiteinu positively and said he was looking forward to Thursday's negotiations with Habayit Hayehudi (3 seats) and the National Union (4).
"The discussions were very good," he said. "We dealt with issues, not portfolios. Shas raised economic and social matters, unemployment and dismissals. Part of the issues will be dealt with by secondary teams - issues like region and state and reforming the electoral system. The [potential] partners dealt with the issues seriously, but obviously, I have never entered into negotiations where there haven't been differences of opinions."
Jonny Hadi contributed to this report.
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