Netanyahu's Major Hurdle: Bennett or Lieberman for Israel's Foreign Minister?

The idea of rotating the portfolio between Bennett and Lieberman has been raised, as coalition talks between Likud and Kulanu appear to be heading toward agreement.

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Avigdor Lieberman watches at Naftali Bennett and Moshe Ya'alon speak in the Knesset, November 10, 2014.
Avigdor Lieberman watches at Naftali Bennett and Moshe Ya'alon speak in the Knesset, November 10, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fittousi

As coalition talks between Likud and Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu appeared to be heading toward agreement a week from Wednesday, the major stumbling block toward a coalition now seems to be the identity of the next foreign minister.

Likud continues to seek a compromise between the two contenders over the Foreign Ministry portfolio – Habayit Hayehudi chairman and current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, and the current foreign minister, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman. The idea of rotating the portfolio between Bennett and Lieberman has now been raised.

“We are looking for creative solutions to satisfy Bennett and Lieberman who each want the Foreign Ministry portfolio. The possibility of a rotation has come up and it is one of the steps we are considering,” a senior figure in Likud told Haaretz, adding: “There is no doubt that the Foreign Ministry portfolio is the major problem at the moment in coalition talks because the rest of the matters seem at the moment to have been resolved.”

Until now Likud had intended to insist that Bennett make do with the Education Ministry, because of Habayit Hayehudi’s poor showing in the elections, which meant that it had not garnered enough Knesset seats to entitle it to a senior ministerial post. But sources in Likud now concede: “Bennett will not be education minister at this point, that is already a fact,”

According to a senior figure in Likud, Bennett “can’t be forced to serve at a post he’s not interested in.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Likud members recently that he is considering holding on to the Foreign Ministry himself, but a source in Likud said: “Such statements shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s clear to everyone that Netanyahu will compromise very quickly and give the portfolio to one of the parties. It’s clear to us that keeping the Foreign Ministry in our hands will do more harm than good to the coalition talks.”

Meanwhile Likud is also looking into other suitable posts for Bennett. “Bennett might end up keeping the Economy Ministry and perhaps receive an upgraded economy portfolio,” a source in Likud said.

However, sources in Likud said they were “seriously considering” giving the Economy Ministry to Shas MK Arye Dery “to leave the Interior Ministry open so to fulfil the wishes of Moshe Kahlon to take control of the Planning Administration.”

Likud is now expected to insist on keeping either the Interior Ministry or the Education Ministry for one of its ministers. A senior Likud figure said: “These two portfolios are the key ones that have access to all the local councils. We have an overriding interest in continuing to hold on to at least one of these portfolios. Perhaps because of the conflicts between Kulanu and Shas, Likud will take hold of the Interior Ministry again. If not, we will certainly act to hold the Education Ministry.”

Netanyahu on Wednesday offered Shas party chairman Arye Dery the Transportation Ministry portfolio, Channel 2 reported.

Recently, Dery has been considered a frontrunner for the Interior Ministry portfolio, and Netanyahu’s offer was likely made due to pressure from Kahlon, who has demanded responsibility over the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration. Dery is opposed to transferring the administration out of the Interior Ministry, and has yet to respond to Netanyahu’s offer.

Likud sources said they were hoping Dery would give up his demand to be made interior minister. “If this doesn’t happen, we’re looking at possibilities to place a deputy minister to represent Kahlon in the Interior Ministry or to give Shas another minister in the Finance Ministry, or at least a deputy minister in the same ministry that comes under Kahlon, but with a connection to the Planning Administration, which in such a scenario would be moved to the Finance Ministry.”

Shas said it was not talking portfolios at all at this point. “We still have not made agreements on the economic and social issues. We are waiting for negotiations to move ahead and only then will we move ahead with portfolios. That will not happen in the week to come,” a Shas source said.

Sources in Likud said they hoped an agreement with Kulanu would be signed by Wednesday, which is the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the last day before which Netanyahu will have to ask the president for an extension to complete the formation of the government.

“A warm cooperative relationship was created this week between Netanyahu and Kahlon and this gives us optimism, but it is certainly not enough. Negotiations to formulate the coalition agreement have not yet begun and all the reforms that he and we want to move ahead have not yet been discussed between us. That will require a lot of work and time,” a source in Likud said.

The President’s Residence said recently that the meeting to request an extension on coalition talks would be moved up by one day so as not to discuss a charged political issue on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. This will mean Netanyahu will have to go to the president on Tuesday if an agreement is not reached on a coalition before that.