Likud hopes to forge coalition agreements as early as this week with centrist party Kulanu and ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, senior Likud officials told Haaretz.
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The first coalition agreements might even be signed before Netanyahu asks President Reuven Rivlin for an extension of the coalition talks.
According to political sources, Netanyahu seems well on his way to establishing a right-wing government supported by 67 lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset. Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu would also be on board.
But despite Likud’s optimism, the parties in general are saying the gaps are still great and the negotiating teams have plenty of work to do. Netanyahu is expected to meet with Rivlin on Monday or Tuesday to request an extension, now that the president has said he will not summon the prime minister on Wednesday, Memorial Day.
Netanyahu met Friday with the two sticking points in the negotiations so far, Lieberman and Bennett. Lieberman, who is foreign minister in the outgoing government, told Netanyahu the issue of ministerial portfolios could be resolved, but his party would insist that no changes be made to the reform of the conversion process, the drafting of yeshiva students or other areas in which the ultra-Orthodox parties have made demands in recent weeks.
While the meeting with Lieberman took place at Netanyahu’s official residence, the meeting with Bennett, whose relations with the prime minister are not warm, was held at Netanyahu’s office.
Sources familiar with the details of the meeting said the atmosphere was good and some progress had been made, but Habayit Hayehudi officials declined to discuss the meeting. Officially, the party has not withdrawn its demand for the Foreign Ministry or the Religious Affairs Ministry, which Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas are seeking, respectively.
Meanwhile, another rift came to light Saturday between Shas and Likud. Shas insists that one of its MKs be made one of the Knesset’s eight deputy speakers, even if the party did not win enough seats in the election to deserve this post.
“Shas, just like Habayit Hayehudi, has not yet internalized the results of the election and the low number of seats it won that don’t entitle it to all the posts it wants,” a Likud official said.
Shas wants its MK Yitzhak Vaknin, who has been a deputy speaker on and off for the past two Knesset terms, to remain a deputy speaker. As a compromise, Likud has reportedly offered Shas a rotation of a deputy speaker’s position with United Torah Judaism.
The speaker and the eight deputy speakers are members of the Knesset presidium. They lead Knesset sessions and have a number of other powers. They determine the agenda for Knesset sessions, approve questions from the floor can stop bills from reaching a vote.
The likelihood that Likud would ask Zionist Union, which is made up largely of the Labor Party, to forge a broad coalition has declined considerably, but Likud does not rule out the possibility, Likud officials said.
They said that in recent days various scenarios had been put forward in which the Labor Party would join the coalition, including efforts to split the party’s Knesset caucus. As long as negotiations have not ended, Likud needs the Zionist Union option — “also in case talks with one of the parties run aground,” as one Likud official put it.
Herzog reiterated Saturday that he intended to lead the opposition. “I said upon learning of the election results that we were heading for the opposition,” he said at a cultural event at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater. “This is not a default, it’s a preference.”
According to Herzog, “From our place in the opposition we will replace the Likud government in the future, because Netanyahu will make the government hit a wall in the end.”
Likud sources said they preferred that Herzog link up with a limited number of Labor MKs to support a grand coalition. They said they believed that many MKs who had expressed opposition to a unity government would backtrack if offered an attractive enough deal.
“In any case, Netanyahu doesn’t want to include Tzipi Livni and members of Hatnuah, so it’s better if Herzog doesn’t bring in Hatnuah and heads a list including at least eight MKs, all of whom would be appointed ministers,” a Likud official said, referring to Herzog’s partner in Zionist Union and her Hatnuah faction.
“A good option would be for Herzog to come with 12 MKs; then he’d be a proper substitute for Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi.”
Referring to the claim that Herzog and Netanyahu have been secretly meeting to negotiate a possible unity government, Herzog said “there has been no secret meeting between me and him.”
Herzog has only spoken twice with Netanyahu since the March 17 election, he said.
“I’ve spoken with Bibi twice since the vote,” Herzog said. “I haven’t spoken with any of his envoys, and he hasn’t spoken with any of my envoys .... Netanyahu had to make a decision on who he’d form a government with, and it’s obvious he prefers a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government.”