After signing Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah as his first coalition partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to form his third government has run into a snag: Most parties likely to join his coalition oppose the plan he has backed for drafting yeshiva students, arguing it is too lenient.
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The plan, proposed by the head of Netanyahu's National Economic Council, Prof. Eugene Kandel, sets a goal of drafting 60 percent of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) men aged 18 to 24 within five years. But critics say it lacks teeth.
Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi had previously announced that they oppose the plan, and on Wednesday they were joined by Kadima. At a meeting with Netanyahu, Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz said he couldn't join a government whose proposal on the Haredi draft issue was akin to the one over which he quit Netanyahu's second government last summer.
Moreover, most of Hatnuah - the one party with which Netanyahu has so far signed a coalition agreement - is also expected to oppose the plan.
Thus if all these parties stand firm, Netanyahu will have trouble forming a coalition without agreeing to significantly tougher measures to get Haredi men into the army. Currently, 33 MKs - from Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Kadima - have broadly agreed on the outlines of a much tougher plan than Kandel's. The Kandel plan is so far supported only by Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu's 31 MKs.
Both Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid say the Kandel plan "lacks teeth" because it includes only very mild penalties for Haredim who decline to be drafted. Therefore, they argue, it won't be effective in persuading Haredim to enlist.
The proposal says that Haredim who refuse to enlist will lose benefits totaling a mere NIS 160 a month. That's about two percent of the income of an average Haredi family.
Currently, the state spends about NIS 1 billion a year to support yeshivas. This includes a stipend of NIS 800 a month for every married yeshiva student. In addition, Haredi families usually benefit from various other state welfare payments, as well as discounts on taxes and services.
Kadima sources said Wednesday that while the party hasn't joined the Yesh Atid-Habayit Hayehudi alliance, its views on the Haredi draft issue are very similar. They said that Mofaz's meeting with Netanyahu was businesslike, but so far, negotiations between the parties haven't made any progress.
MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah ), considered an expert on the draft issue due to his former job as head of the Israel Defense Forces' Personnel Directorate, has been appointed by his party to negotiate with Likud on the issue.
So far, Hatnuah's entry into the coalition hasn't had the hoped-for effect, from Netanyahu's perspective, of pressuring Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett to do the same. Bennett said publicly on Wednesday that he is considering the possibility of not joining the government and that sitting in the opposition is "not a disaster." He also attacked Netanyahu's decision to sign a coalition agreement that put Hatnuah leader Livni in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians.
"We've come to serve the nation in any fashion, from the coalition or the opposition," Bennett told a meeting of his party's convention in Jerusalem on Wednesday. "The only question is what this government's path will be: buying political time, or truly coping with fundamental problems? If the new government is interested in tackling the nation of Israel's real problems, we're in. But if the goal is to buy more time, we won't be. And that's not a disaster."
Regarding Livni, he said that he's "not interested" in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or any of the other PA officials who might negotiate with her. "What interests me is the nation of Israel - not Abu Mazen [Abbas], Abu Ala [Ahmed Qureia] or who knows who else will sit with Livni," he said. "They're not interesting. We're at a historic crossroads, and the ball is in the prime minister's court: Will we hold onto the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, or will we entrust the negotiations to someone who has already offered to divide the city of Jerusalem and conceded [the West Bank settlement bloc of] Ariel?"
Hatnuah later denied this accusation, saying in a statement that "Livni never conceded Ariel, and never discussed Jerusalem" during the negotiations she conducted as foreign minister in Ehud Olmert's government. "She scrupulously protected Israel's national interests. In politics, truth is also an option."
But despite Bennett's attacks on Netanyahu and Livni, his party hasn't given up on joining the coalition. on Wednesday, the convention approved a new bylaw authorizing Bennett to decide who the party's ministers will be if it does join. That is a change from the previous bylaw, which said the party's ministers should be chosen by its central committee rather than the chairman.
Meanwhile, Likud and Habayit Hayehudi continued on Wednesday to trade accusations over the personal tension between Netanyahu and Bennett, which dates back to 2006 when Bennett served as Netanyahu's bureau chief.
"For decades, there has been a natural partnership between Likud and religious Zionism," Bennett said in his convention speech. "In the recent campaign, we were crudely attacked and something in this partnership was torn. They wanted to return us to the position of the non-commissioned officer in charge of religion."
But in an interview with Army Radio, attorney David Shimron, who heads the Likud's coalition negotiations team, charged that Bennett was responsible for the ongoing rift. "The prime minister didn't go in personal directions," he said. "I think Naftali Bennett's behavior recently has created tension of one kind or another. The prime minister has set this tension aside."
Habayit Hayehudi subsequently retorted in a statement that "these smears aren't even worthy of a response. We recommend keeping a cool head and [showing] mutual respect when conducting negotiations."