Coalition Talks Enter Final Stretch

Netanyahu Meets With Lapid, Bennett to Iron Out Final Terms of Coalition Agreement

Disagreements remain on subject of ultra-Orthodox military service; Lieberman outlines reforms to Israel's system of governance to be presented by new government; Mofaz's role in new coalition still unclear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett at 10 P.M. on Sunday night.

The meeting between Netanayhu, Lapid and Bennett was over just after midnight on Sunday. After the meeting, the negotiating teams of the parties met to hash out the details of agreements reached in Sunday night's tripartite meeting. It was estimated that that these talks would continue throughout the night. Lapid and Bennett were set to stay in Jerusalem overnight in case they were needed by their negotiating teams. Sources from both Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi described the meeting as encouraging.

The meeting between the prime minister and the two party leaders was meant to settle a number of sticking points in the ongoing coalition negotiations, chief among them the issue of a "more equal sharing of the burden" of military service by the ultra-Orthodox community.

Sources involved in the negotiations said that Yesh Atid had backtracked on an understanding reached between the sides on Saturday night. While Yesh Atid's proposal on the issue formed the basis for the discussion, changes were introduced in order to "connect it to reality," as a Likud source put it.

Other subjects under discussion included the number of ministers and deputy ministers the new government would include, the distribution of portfolios to the various parties and the question of who will serve as education minister. Sources involved in the negotiations said that, thus far, the talks were "moving slowly."

The sides hope to settle all of the issues on the agenda by Wednesday. “At the moment, it doesn’t seem as if we’re headed for crisis,” said one Likud official involved in the negotiations earlier on Sunday.

Sources within Habayit Hayehudi and Shas confirmed on Sunday night that officials from within the Prime Minister’s Office had “sent out feelers” to gauge the chances of them joining the coalition in place of Yesh Atid. The initiative, which did not come to fruition, was meant to create an alternative plan, an additional option to the government that appears to be forming.

At the same time, the move was meant to put pressure on Yair Lapid to backtrack on his numerous, significant demands for joining a Netanyahu-led coalition. Other political officials estimate that Netanyahu kept the channels of negotiations open with the ultra-Orthodox, in hopes of creating a government more to his liking.

“The bond between Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi represents a threat to Netanyahu. He understands that he will have a hard time advancing his agenda while the two parties work in cooperation. Over the last few days, he searched for a way to lock Lapid out, and once again checked the possibility of creating a government with the ultra-Orthodox – even after it had been clear that this was not an option,” said those officials.

“The plan was to get Bennett to sign a coalition agreement, and then to present the ultra-Orthodox as the other partners, instead of Lapid. The ultra-Orthodox, on the other hand, were asked to agree to the equal sharing of the burden of military service which Bennet supports, knowing that Netanyahu could pass him over in the debate over the foreign ministry and the defense ministry.”

Lieberman's demands

Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) on Sunday presented a series of demands that his party seeks to include in the basic guidelines of the third Netanyahu government.

According to Lieberman, the next government is expected to propose a bill that would require the 20th Knesset to have no more than 18 ministers and four deputy ministers.

Another bill would require MKs to resign from the Knesset when they are appointed to be government ministers and make way for the next person on their party list to take their seat, in an effort to separate Israel's legislative and executive branches.

A third proposed bill, according to Lieberman, would allow the government to operate in the absence of an approved annual budget.

“We in Yisrael Beiteinu have fought for a few conditions that we hope will be part of the government’s guiding principles,” said Lieberman, adding “the new government reflects the will of the people, as we can see in the election results."

“There is no doubt that this week the Knesset will vote to approve the new government. I suppose that by Tuesday, this whole matter will be settled. Perhaps it’s advisable to wait another day to hammer out the details, so as not to be hasty, and to avoid future problems. The irreversible process is underway. Of course, at the last minute, everyone is trying to improve their positions, but, without a doubt, the government will be formed."

Responding to reports that Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid "gave up" on his demand to be appointed foreign minister, Lieberman said that "it was clear to all that [the Foreign Ministry] belongs to Yisrael Beiteinu, and this was accepted with understanding. We congratulate everyone for their cooperative spirit."

Lieberman rejected criticism of the fact that no foreign minister would be appointed for the duration of his corruption trial, saying that "there have been periods in the history of Israel when the prime minister held five, six, or even eight portfolios at once I don't think there is anything new in the fact that the prime minister will hold on to the foreign affairs portfolio for a few months."

Mofaz's role still unclear

Meanwhile, Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz's role in the next government has yet to be defined. Mofaz, who led the largest party in the outgoing Knesset and now heads its smallest party, is not holding direct negotiations with the Likud–Yisrael Beiteinu. Instead, Yesh Atid is negotiating on his behalf.

"We are waiting for Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi to finish their negotiations, and then we will sit down and allocate the portfolios amongst the parties," a prominent member of Kadima said. "No one is worried. We are aware of our size and of our role in changing the balance of power in the new Knesset."

Sources in Yesh Atid said Mofaz may serve as social affairs minister or in a different post, based on the portfolios they are allotted. This will be determined by, among other things, the outcome of the ongoing negotiations over the education ministry.

Yesh Atid wants Rabbi Shay Piron to be the next minister of education, while the Likud wants current Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to continue to serve in that post in the new government. If Piron doesn't get the education ministry, he may choose to take the social affairs ministry.

Under the current arrangement of one minister for every three Knesset seats, Kadima's two slots are not enough to afford Mofaz with a ministerial position. Therefore, Yesh Atid is expected to provide him with an appointment at the expense of its own six-minister allotment.

Such an arrangement would presumably pave the way to a strengthening of the relationship between Lapid's party and Kadima, and perhaps eventually to the addition of Kadima's two MKs to the Yesh Atid roster.

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