Netanyahu Ready to Give Bennett's Party Justice Portfolio, but With Limited Authority

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Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, July 2, 2013.Credit: Tali Meyer

The Likud is likely to accede to Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett's demand to hand the Justice Ministry portfolio over to his party, but with limited authority, a senior Likud official said Wednesday.

The Likud expects to sign a deal with Habayit Hayehudi at least with initials by midnight, but it is doubtful that all of the clauses of the coalition negotiations will be resolved by that deadline.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s time to form a 61-MK coalition running out, Bennett gave him an ultimatum late Tuesday: Hand over the justice portfolio or lose the premiership.

Bennett intends to give the portfolio to MK Ayelet Shaked, while keeping the position of education minister for himself.

The Likud has apparently agreed to Bennett's request, but tried to structure the justice portfolio to contain fewer authorities than in the past. Initially, it wanted to remove from the post the chairmanships of the ministerial committee for legislation and the judicial appointments committee.

In the end, it appears that the ministerial committee for legilation will remain under the jurisdiction of the justice minister. The judicial appointment committee, however, will be subject to the Prime Minister's Office, and will likely be overseen by a minister from Likud. 

Within Habayit Hayehudi itself, the justice portfolio has caused some upset: MK Uri Ariel met Bennett on Wednesday afternoon and demanded that the ministry be given to him. Party sources say that Ariel wants a higher position than Shaked, and therefore demanding the portfolio for himself. The Tekuma faction of the party said earlier than if Ariel did not get the position, they would order him to quit the coalition, but he has not official responded to those remarks.

Ariel is demanding understanding with Bennett according to which he would receive the second highest ministerial position – meanwhile, the justice portfolio is more senior than the education ministry, which Bennett himself will be taking

Likud official: Bennett extorted us, he will pay in the end

The Likud official said that while the party was likely to accept Habayit Hayehudi's demand, Bennett's ulimatum amounted to extortion, "Bennett extorted us, and in this case, it seems his extortion will work for him. But extortion comes at a price, and Bennett will have to pay dearly in the future," the official said.

"It seems Netanyahu has managed to consolidate a coalition of 61 Knesset seats and he can inform the president of such." he added. "What's going to happen after that? Will the Zionist Union join? A decision has still not been made about that."

Sources in Netanyahu’s Likud party said Tuesday they thought Bennett’s demand for the Justice Ministry was pure spin, aimed at allowing him to demand another senior portfolio in its place.

“Bennett knows how important the justice portfolio is to Netanyahu, and that the chances of him giving this portfolio are slim,” one said. “Presumably, this demand is aimed at allowing Bennett to ‘compromise’ later on the Foreign Ministry or another senior ministry.”

If Netanyahu doesn’t form a coalition by Thursday at 12 A.M., he will forfeit his chance to remain prime minister. Moreover, he must have Habayit Hayehudi’s eight seats to attain the necessary 61-seat majority.

But the coalition agreements don’t actually have to be signed by midnight; it’s enough for Netanyahu to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he has the necessary 61 votes. He then has a week to actually present his government to the Knesset.

Bennett's goals

Bennett has two goals in the upcoming negotiations with Likud. One is to significantly upgrade the list of portfolios Netanyahu has offered his party. The second is to ensure that Habayit Hayehudi will retain a powerful position in the government even if Netanyahu later tries to bring Zionist Union into the coalition. Habayit Hayehudi MKs fear that Netanyahu will make such a bid within a few months, and that if he succeeds, he will oust them from the government.

Likud sources said there were two problems with giving the Justice Ministry to Habayit Hayehudi.

“The first is that the justice minister will soon have to decide on who the next attorney general will be,” said one. “This is a very sensitive position, and Netanyahu has no interest in entrusting the task to Bennett or Shaked. The second problem is that Shaked is spearheading the battle to change the face of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu has thus far avoided a frontal confrontation with the court, and it’s not certain he wants this headache.”

After Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on Monday, the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi decided to up its demands. For hours yesterday, there was no contact at all between Habayit Hayehudi and Likud, as the former was furious over Netanyahu’s decision to give Shas chairman Arye Dery exclusive control over both the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbinical courts.

Following a stormy meeting Monday night, Habayit Hayehudi decided to dismantle its negotiating team and entrust the negotiations solely to Bennett. It authorized Bennett to make any decision, including remaining in the opposition – which would leave Netanyahu without a government.

If Netanyahu misses the deadline, Rivlin can give another Knesset member the chance to form a government. 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. Sources in Habayit Hayehudi hinted that in this case, they would throw their weight behind another Likud MK. 

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