It's Crunch Time for PM as Coalition Deadline Looms

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Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is required by law to inform President Reuven Rivlin by Wednesday evening whether he has been able to form a coalition. If he is successful, as is expected, the government will apparently be sworn in next Monday.

Until the new government is formally installed, the prime minister will be able to continue assigning ministerial and deputy minister portfolios to members of his Likud party. After garnering 30 seats in the March 17 election, Likud is the largest party in the 120-member parliament.

Since the law limits the number of cabinet ministers in the new government to 18, the understanding reached with Likud’s coalition partners is that cabinet members will be installed in two phases, with an initial 18 assuming their posts until the law is changed to allow additional ministers.

The new coalition agreements call, in the first phase, for Likud to have 10 ministers; Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party and Habayit Hayehudi, headed by Naftali Bennett, will have two each; and Arye Dery’s Shas will have one minister.

In the second phase, assuming the law is changed, Likud will get two more spots around the cabinet table, while the other parties will each get one.

Other than Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, who will serve as deputy health minister from the outset, no deputy ministers will be appointed until after the law is changed. In practice, Litzman will have full day-to-day authority at the Health Ministry as there will be no senior minister serving above him.

Netanyahu is expected to form a coalition consisting of 61 seats, a tiny majority, in the Knesset. The Basic Law: The Government (2001), which has constitutional legal status, provides that if Netanyahu does not manage to form a government by Wednesday, President Rivlin must find another Knesset member whom he would charge with forming a coalition.

In such an eventuality, that person would be Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union, the second-largest faction in the Knesset. Herzog would have 28 days (compared to Netanyahu’s 42) to form a coalition. If he too were to fail, Knesset members would be entitled to propose another candidate to make an attempt.

By law if every effort to create a coalition were to fail, the president and Knesset speaker would be authorized to call a new election 90 days after the president announces that no MK has been able to form a government.

'Unprecedented' offer

On Monday, Likud sources were quick to act after signing a coalition agreement with Shas and the announcement by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, that he would resigning and taking his party into the opposition. Likud officials used these developments to ratchet up pressure on Habayit Hayehudi’s Bennett to sign a coalition agreement. Likud has been explicit in terms of which ministries it would give Bennett, and warned that his rejection of what the party calls an “unprecedented” offer would give rise to a left-wing government.

Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset faction convened to consider the offer and to decide whether to continue to engage in negotiations. Pressure has increased within the party, meanwhile, to make Bennett demand an additional senior ministry portfolio, either foreign or defense, in light of Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister.

Likud officials understood on Monday that in announcing that he was taking Yisrael Beiteinu to the opposition, Lieberman was putting the largest party in a bind. Assuming Habayit Hayehudi joins the coalition, Netanyahu would head a government commanding a bare parliamentary majority.

“A coalition of 61 is an impossible coalition,” said one Likud source. “It would be enough for Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich of Tekuma [a faction within Habayit Hayehudi] to decide to flex their muscles, and the government would fall.”

Likud sources acknowledged that they had simply assumed that Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party would be a coalition partner. The sources said that the party had seen its initial task as coming to an agreement with Shas and Habayit Hayehudi, thus securing a coalition of 61, and only then approaching Lieberman.

The assessment in Likud, they added, was that the chances that Lieberman would prefer going into the opposition were low. The thinking had been that he would join a Netanyahu-led government regardless of the terms as long as he was offered the prestigious foreign minister’s portfolio.