No Real Progress in Talks With Lapid; PM to Meet With Bennett Next Week

Despite saying he wants the Habayit Hayehudi leader in his government, Netanyahu has found time to meet with everyone else but him; 'He's humiliating him,' says Likud source.

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Ten days after the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still seems no closer to forming a coalition. Likud sources said Thursday that coalition talks are likely to continue until close to the legal "deadline."

Netanyahu met with Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid on Thursday to discuss the latter's joining the next coalition, but made no real progress on the matter, said sources privy to the talks.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu's relations with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett continue to be tense. The two will meet for the first time after the election only next week.

During the week, Likud Beiteinu's negotiation team met all the factions interested in joining the government. Likud sources said Netanyahu aspires to form a broad coalition with the ultra-Orthodox factions, Habayit Hayehudi, Hatnuah and Kadima and expects Lapid to become a major partner as well.

But Likud figures doubt all these factions could coexist in the same coalition.

Lapid is ready to join such a government only if the prime minister accepts a number of conditions, such as cutting down the number of ministers and cancelling the position of ministers without portfolio.

Lapid also wants to remove ultra-Orthodox party officials from their traditional power positions, such as the chair of the Knesset's Finance Committee.

"The ball is in Netanyahu's hands," said sources in Yesh Atid. "He has to decide what kind of coalition he wants to form and only after that will it be possible to move ahead on the other issues."

Yesh Atid sources also predicted the negotiations will continue until "the very last minute" and only then will Netanyahu formulate the desirable outline for the government. The two have agreed to hold another meeting in the coming days.

Netanyahu's meeting with Lapid on Thursday, the second since the election, lasted two and a half hours. In a joint statement they released afterward the two said the meeting was held "in a very good atmosphere."

The meeting followed a number of verbal clashes and power struggles between Lapid and Netanyuahu since the election.

On Tuesday, at the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu meeting, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized Lapid and said he is only interested in replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, rather than in the good of the country.

"This is the first time I see people who the day after an election aren't talking about the good of the country but rather about how to become prime minister," Lieberman said.

At a meeting with Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On on Thursday, Netanyahu spoke of the difficulty in setting up the new coalition. "I'll have to form three different coalitions," he said, referring to the conflicting demands regarding the peace process, legislation on social affairs and the military draft issue.

Gal-On told Netanyahu Meretz would not join his coalition, but would support any moves his government took toward peace and to advance social justice. She urged Netanyahu to adopt the Saudi peace initiative as an outline for the peace process. "Netanyahu should be the first prime minister to adopt the Saudi plan, which is the basis for any peace initiative," Gal-On said after emerging from the meeting.

"Netanyahu's government will not be able to advance both the peace process and the draft issue, without Lapid in the government," a Likud source said earlier this week.

"Now we have a real opportunity to jumpstart the peace process and make a real change in the draft situation. After [Labor leader] Shelly Yacimovich made it clear she will not join Netanyahu's government, Lapid is the only option," the source said.

"We need the ultra-Orthodox in the government to advance the peace process, but on the draft issue Netanyahu cannot count on the Haredi parties alone. He has said he wants a government with Tzipi Livni, the Haredi factions, Naftali Bennet and, of course, Yair Lapid," he said.

Relations between Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett continue to be frosty.

Netanyahu, who has met Lapid twice already, told Bennett he would hold his first meeting with him only next week, about two weeks after the election.

Netanyahu has even found time to meet opposition leader Yacimovich and Meretz leader Gal-On, who are not interested in joining the coalition.

After the election Netanyahu made a perfunctory courtesy call to Bennett and shook his hand limply in front of the cameras on Tuesday.

"Netanyahu said he wants Bennett in his government, but he's humiliating him. It's not clear how they'll be able to work together," a Likud source said.

Netanyahu also intends to meet the Haredi parties' representatives next week.

Bennett and Shas chairman Eli Yishai spoke on Thursday on the phone for the first time to examine possible ways their parties could cooperate. The conversation took place after Shas' ruling triumvirate issued a joint statement denying any connection with an article blasting Habayit Hayehudi in the Shas affiliated Yom Leyom newspaper.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, left, and Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett at the swearing-in ceremony for new Knesset members on Feb. 5, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

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