Likud Signs Coalition Deals With Kulanu, UTJ

Agreements are the first deals signed as Netanyahu has seven days left to form a ruling coalition; Kahlon, slated to be finance minister, gets powers to lower prices and reform banks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nailed down his first coalition agreements yesterday, coming to terms with Kulanu and United Torah Judaism parties. Netanyahu made the deals a week before his time runs out on forming a new government. 

The agreement with Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon, slated to be finance minister, indicates that Kahlon succeeded in forcing Netanyahu to adopt the socioeconomic agenda that was at the heart of Kulanu’s election campaign. Since the party will also gain control of the Planning Administration, which will be transferred to the treasury from the Interior Ministry, Kahlon will be in a better position to implement his ambitious plans to lower the price of housing and the cost of living in general, as well as to reform the banking sector.

His party has also been promised another 1 billion shekels ($258.4 million) for Israel Defense Forces soldiers, who will see hikes in their salaries and demobilization grants.

Kulanu’s No. 2, Yoav Galant, will be appointed construction and housing minister. There have been broad hints that the party’s third portfolio, environmental protection, will be given to former Bezeq CEO Avi Gabay, who is not an MK but is very close to Kahlon. If that happens, MK Eli Alalouf is likely to be named chairman of a socially-oriented Knesset committee, such as Labor and Social Affairs, where he can advance the recommendations made last year by the war on poverty committee he headed.

The agreement with United Torah Judaism calls for MK Yaakov Litzman to be deputy health minister, with no minister above him, while MK Moshe Gafni will head the Knesset Finance Committee, and MK Meir Porush will be deputy education minister. The deal with UTJ includes 87 clauses, including many that deal with religious issues. Most prominent among them is a commitment to effectively cancel the criminal sanctions to be levied on yeshiva students if the total number of students drafted into the military doesn’t reach the quotas set. The agreement calls for the law to be amended so that the defense minister will have the authority to set the draft quotas, and because of UTJ’s power within the coalition, this clause assures that the sanctions will never be applied.

The pact with UTJ promises to roll back several other changes made by the last government. On the financial side, it demands the restoration of some 2.5 billion shekels in child allowances, the reversal of cuts to Haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum, and free dental care for children up to age 14.

On the relationship between religion and state, the agreement calls for cancelling the conversion reform that had been approved by a government resolution in November. That decision had authorized local rabbis to convene conversion courts, breaking the monopoly of the handful of rabbinic courts run by the Chief Rabbinate. Under the coalition agreement with UTJ, this authorization “will be changed in accordance with the letter signed by the Rishon Letzion [Rabbi Shlomo] Amar.” In other words, the autonomy given to local rabbis will effectively be cancelled.

About five years ago, when Amar was still chief rabbi of Israel, he was involved in the wording of one of the many versions of proposed legislation on this issue, whose initiator was former MK David Rotem. At the time, Amar conditioned his agreement to local rabbis performing conversions on the conversion receiving the approval of the country’s chief rabbi. 

Since then the bill went through several permutations, but what is still often referred to as the “conversion law” was never passed by the Knesset; instead, half a year ago, after intense lobbying by, among others, former MK Elazar Stern, it was adopted as a government resolution but was never implemented. The current chief rabbis have rejected the reform, and the Religious Services Ministry took no steps to implement it.

UTJ achieved some other commitments in this area, with the agreement calling for a team to reevaluate the law allowing couples to register for marriage where they please, rather than in one or the other’s hometown, and cancelling the four reserved places for women on the committee that appoints rabbinic court judges.

A late-night meeting between Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett ended without results, after the prime minister apparently refused to promise another 1 billion shekels to the Education Ministry, which Bennett is expected to head, to allow the hiring of a second assistant in each preschool and kindergarten class.

“The Likud offered us a portfolio with no tools and no money,” a Habayit Hayehudi source said about the ministry, whose budget is second only to that of the Defense Ministry. “They gave the Haredi parties 3.5 billion shekels for sectorial needs and left nothing for the educational system. The prime minister wants us to spend a term putting out fires, with no tools to solve the distress of Israeli pupils,” the source said.

In addition to the education portfolio, Habayit Hayehudi confirmed that the Agriculture Ministry would go to Uri Ariel, who will also control the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which has emerged as a funding channel to the West Bank settlements. Ayelet Shaked will be appointed culture and sports minister.