Netanyahu Expected to Appoint Ministers in Coming Week

Demands of Kulanu and Habayit Hayehudi proving sticking point in coalition talks.

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Netanyahu and Bennett in the Knesset. February 12, 2014.
Netanyahu and Bennett in the Knesset. February 12, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

Negotiations for the establishment of a new government are expected to gather pace this week, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expected to decide on ministerial appointments.

Far-reaching demands by the Kulanu and Habayit Hayehudi parties had stymied talks before the Passover break, with one Likud MK saying, “Netanyahu will have to take meaningful decisions regarding ministerial appointments at the beginning of next week, or else the negotiations won’t go anywhere.”

Likud sources say that neither party is currently prepared to be more flexible due to their assessment that Netanyahu cannot build a coalition without them.

Netanyahu presumably would prefer to wait for the negotiations with Kulanu and Habayit Hayehudi to gel, in order to sign a coalition agreement with all the partners in the incoming government at the same time, rather than going ahead and closing the deal with the parties with which understandings have been reached on most substantive issues – namely, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beiteinu.

A senior Likud official said he expected Netanyahu to decide on cabinet appointments this week, adding that the talks would go nowhere if the prime minister did not make progress on that front.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu held a meeting with senior figures in his party over the coalition negotiations. The discussion centered around the demands of Kulanu and Habayit Hayehudi. Likud’s position is that the parties headed by Moshe Kahlon and Naftali Bennett, respectively, are holding firm because they believe Netanyahu cannot form a coalition without them.

Kulanu and Habayit Hayehudi would appear to be correct in their assessment. Despite loud pronouncements about the possibility of turning to other potential coalition partners, Likud has made it clear that it has no intention of approaching Zionist Union about forming a unity government. One Likud lawmaker said any such claims were a red herring that was part of the negotiating strategy.

Netanyahu met with Shas chairman Arye Dery last Thursday in an attempt to solve one of the key obstacles to the coalition – the demand by both Shas and Kulanu for authority over the state’s planning and zoning agencies.

While Dery is expected to serve as interior minister, Kahlon is demanding the transfer of the Israel Land Authority from the Interior Ministry into the hands of his party.

Likud sources said that since MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) is expected to be named deputy finance minister, the ILA could be moved without upsetting either Shas or Kulanu.

Estimates are that Kahlon’s demands for ministerial portfolios in the coalition negotiations will not derail the finalizing of an agreement with him, and that he is ultimately likely to receive the finance, housing and environmental protection ministries as he demands.

Sources within Kulanu have recently mentioned the party’s No. 2, MK Yoav Galant, as a surefire candidate for a cabinet position, and No. 3, Eli Alaluf, or Kahlon crony and former Bezeq CEO Avi Gabay (who was not a Knesset candidate) as possible candidates for the party’s third cabinet spot.

Beyond the issue of the Israel Land Authority, there are a number of outstanding disagreements between the various parties that are making the finalizing of the coalition agreement difficult.

For example, there is a great deal of daylight between the positions of Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu on the issue of abolishing reforms to the Jewish conversion process. Likud is not a party to this dispute.

Meanwhile, Likud has yet to rule on the demands by both Shas and Habayit Hayehudi for the Religious Affairs Ministry, and those of both Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu for the Foreign Ministry. Likud figures say the latter portfolio will remain with Yisrael Beiteinu, but Habayit Hayehudi still insists that its chairman, Naftali Bennett, must be the next foreign minister.

The issue of who heads the powerful Knesset Finance Committee has also not been resolved, but sources in Likud said they expected that Kahlon will eventually agree that MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) should retain the position.

Members of both the Habayit Hayehudi and Kulanu negotiating teams agreed that the ball is in Netanyahu’s court. “We have submitted most of our demands, and the Likud team said they’d give us an answer soon. We’re waiting,” said one negotiator.

Netanyahu and Likud received an initial 28 days to form a coalition, with that deadline set to expire on April 22.

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