Coalition Talks Reach Another Crisis Point, as United Torah Judaism Signs On

As deadline for talks nears, Habayit Hayehudi and Shas reiterate demands; Zionist Union denies contacts with Netanyahu's Likud party for a unity government.

Emil Salman

With only eight days left to form a government, Likud and United Torah Judaism agreed yesterday on a draft coalition agreement. Habayit Hayehudi and Shas, however, both declared a crisis in their negotiations with Likud over joining the coalition.

Likud negotiators are expected to present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the draft of the deal with UTJ, whose Knesset members will consult with the party’s Council of Torah Sages before signing a final agreement.

It was agreed that UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman will be deputy health minister, Moshe Gafni will be chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee and Meir Porush will be deputy education minister.

UTJ will also be given a Knesset deputy speaker’s position for half a term. That post is expected to go to Israel Eichler.

UTJ said it was pleased that Litzman’s demands to expand nursing care for the elderly and free dental care for children under 14 had been met in the agreement. Both are to go into effect in January 2016.

UTJ said Litzman intended to expand free dental care up to age 18, as he had promised voters.

Sources in Jerusalem said the crises with Habayit Hayehudi and Shas do not signal a failure in the talks with the parties, but rather they were flexing their muscles to gain more of their demands. Habayit Hayehudi yesterday announced it was suspending talks because of Netanyahu’s delay in deciding whether to give the party’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, the education portfolio.

As a condition for renewing the talks, Habayit Hayehudi released a statement yesterday with a demand for answers from Likud to a number of other bones of contention between the two parties. Among them are Netanyahu’s stand on bills to weaken the status of the Supreme Court, a renewal of construction in Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s plans for the Religious Services Ministry. In a second statement, Habayit Hayehudi said it also wanted construction renewed in the settlements, a condition to which Netanyahu is unlikely to agree in the framework of the coalition accords.

A senior Habayit Hayehudi figure said the prime minister was delaying his responses so as to start talks toward a coalition with Zionist Union. “The last moment for a unity government is here. If Netanyahu wants Herzog in the coalition, he must ask him now,” the Habayit Hayehudi figure said, referring to Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog. The party official noted that “a week before the deadline Likud has not signed an agreement with any party. That says a lot about Netanyahu’s desire to hold onto the Herzog option.”

According to the senior Habayit Hayehudi figure, statements Sunday by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman that if the new government of Israel does not see a commitment to a two-state solution the United States will have trouble defending Israel in the United Nations were meant to nudge Netanyahu toward a unity government.

Zionist Union said there were no contacts between it and Likud over a unity government.

Meanwhile, Shas chairman Arye Dery fanned the flames of discord with his announcement of an urgent meeting of the Shas faction yesterday evening “in light of the fact that there is a complete break for a few days between the parties.”

Dery wants clarifications over which portfolio he is to receive, apparently a combination of economy shored up by social affairs. Dery also wants zero value-added tax on basic products, a demand that Likud is unlikely to agree to considering the Finance Ministry’s opposition to the idea.