Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has assured Education Minister Naftali Bennett that he would not expand the government coalition at the expense of the latter’s party, Habayit Hayehudi.
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If so, then he has basically abandoned the idea of forming a national unity government with the Zionist Union, which would not be able to sit in a government with Habayit Hayehudi because the right-wing party will not allow any real progress toward a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s stance likely also makes it impossible for Yesh Atid to enter the government, since there is no way his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners would tolerate it.
On Sunday, immediately after the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu held a routine meeting with the heads of the coalition factions, during which he turned to Bennett and said, “I will not expand the coalition at your expense.”
Sources at the meeting said that all the faction heads agreed on this point.
“Now that the budget has passed, one can definitely say this government has a future and that it will hold. Therefore, there’s no reason to undermine the foundations on which it’s built,” said a source involved with the discussion.
One Likud minister said, “No one ever thought about forming a new coalition but only about expanding the existing one. I don’t know where people in Zionist Union got the impression that we were prepared to replace Habayit Hayehudi with [Zionist Union leader Isaac] Herzog and his friends. That was never our position.”
Nevertheless, there were some eyebrows raised among coalition leaders after Netanyahu’s remarks. According to a senior Likud official, “Netanyahu indeed had full intentions of establishing a unity government with Zionist Union and forcing Habayit Hayehudi out of the coalition. He said so explicitly in private conversations. He planned to assign Habayit Hayehudi’s portfolios to Zionist Union members. That’s a fact.
“His remarks now reflect the assessment that Isaac Herzog isn’t capable of bringing members of Zionist Union with him into the coalition and that the window of opportunity has closed,” the Likud official said.
Not all the ministers believe that ejecting Habayit Hayehudi would have been possible.
“The option of Habayit Hayehudi not being part of the government was never really on the table from a political perspective,” said one minister. “Netanyahu would have to be stupid to send Bennett into opposition and allow him to establish a destructive alliance with [Yisrael Beiteinu chairman] Avigdor Lieberman to the right of Likud. Habyit Hayehudi voters who listened to Netanyahu and put a Likud slip into the ballot box after he promised to make Bennett a senior partner in his government would never forgive him.”
As for Yesh Atid, many in the Likud thought it would be best to leave its chairman, Yair Lapid, out of the government, and not just because of the ultra-Orthodox. “Lapid was liable to use the foreign affairs portfolio [the presumed reward] to overshadow Netanyahu and turn into a dangerous rival in the next elections,” said a Likud minister.