Netanyahu Threatens to Bolt to Haredi Parties Unless Lapid Drops 'Exaggerated Demands'

Coalition negotiations reach a serious impasse as Yesh Atid says it is ready for new elections unless it gets education portfolio; Yesh Atid: Netanyahu is threatening us with an empty revolver.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened on Wednesday to open lightning-round negotiations with the ultra-Orthodox parties following the aggressive stance taken by Yesh Atid's leader Yair Lapid.

"If there isn't a breakthrough with Lapid in the coming hours, and he doesn't back down from his exaggerated demands, the prime minister will began lightning talks with the Haredi parties," the Likud party said in a statement.

Sources close to the negotiations stated that Lapid backtracked Wednesday morning from a number of understandings that had been previously reached, and at the same time has refused to show any flexibility regarding the long list of topics being discussed by the negotiation teams.

"It's still too early to label the talks a failure, but there's no doubt that Lapid's negotiation team is letting us down with the tack they are taking," said a Likud source involved in the negotiations.

However, a source in Yesh Atid batted down criticism toward the party's negotiating tactics and rejected the Likud's threat as hollow.

"Netanyahu is threatening us with an empty revolver," said the Yesh Atid source. "He hasn't formed a government with the Haredim until now because the election results don't allow him to create such a government."

Opposition MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) also criticized Netanyahu's handling of coalition negotiations on Wednesday, saying that the prime ministers had given too much power to his prospective coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi.

"It appears that aside from keeping the title 'prime minister' Netanyahu has given away the shop and his government will be managed in practice by Lapid and [Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali] Bennett," said Cabel. He added, "Based on the scandalous management abilities he displayed during coalition negotiations, perhaps that's a good thing."

It had appeared earlier on Wednesday that the coalition negotiations were entering the straightaway with the respective parties' negotiation teams primarily working out the distribution of cabinet portfolios: Who will be appointed education minister? Who will hold the interior portfolio? Who will become chair of the Knesset Finance Committee?

A Likud party source has likened the zeitgeist an attempt by coalition partners to "tug the rope", but that the disputes would not lead to a real political crisis. In contrast, Yesh Atid members have threatened, apparently quite seriously, that they were prepared to head to another round of elections if their party does not receive the education portfolio.

Netanyahu has until this Saturday night to form a new government, according to the deadline set by President Shimon Peres. If he fails to succeed, either the baton will be passed to another politician to try their luck or Israel will head to elections.

Alongside the disputes, the prospective coalition parties' negotiating teams have reached a whole slew of eventful agreements outlining the next government's plan of action. Coalition agreements, according to most, tend to throw up dust regarding the government's actual behavior. To predict how some of these agreements will actually pan out, it is worth remembering that the previous Netanyahu government undertook in its coalition agreements the goal of "removing Hamas rule from Gaza."

Either way, here are the coalition agreements that have been reached until now:

Budget agreement: Netanyahu has garnered his coalition partners' support for drastic budget cuts that are expected to be implemented within the next few months. He has agreed to appoint Yair Lapid as finance minister and ensured that a block of at least 68 MKs will support a whole list of significant economic reforms to shore up the budget. The actual planned government budget wasn't presented to coalition partners and Lapid as finance minister will probably seek to implement changes to the budget draft that will be proposed. One way or another, sources within the political establishment believe that the Netanyahu government's new bi-annual budget won't be unveiled until this summer.

Agreement on size of government: The third Netanyahu government will consist of only 20 ministers and maximum of eight deputy ministers. This means that the political institution of "ministers without portfolio" will be disbanded. This represents a significant reduction in the typical number of government ministers in the past decade in general and in the last Netanyahu government in particular, during which 31 ministers served in the government.

The formula of party Knesset seats to government ministers won't be consistent for the various coalition members, with Yesh Atid (five ministers), Habayit Hayehudi (three ministers), and Yisrael Beiteinu (three ministers) receiving government portfolios at the ratio of one minister for every four Knesset members, while the Likud will be able to appoint eight of its own members as ministers.

One of the central disputes in negotiations at the moment is the prospective coalition partners' demand that the share of ministerial portfolios given to Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party be reduced from two to one. As of now, it appears that Kadima party chairman Shaul Mofaz will not be appointed as a minister, since his party's two Knesset seats falls short of the four seats needed to receive a portfolio under the coalition formula.

Agreement on sharing the civic burden: The draft of the law to be proposed will apparently be based on the far-reaching outline previously presented by Yair Lapid, with the addition of a list of adjustments requested by coalition partners. Thus, the draft age for the Haredi sector will be set at 21 – and not at 18, as originally demanded by Lapid. In addition, the number of married Haredi yeshiva students who will receive a draft exemption in order to focus on their Torah studies will reach approximately 1,800 individuals per year, instead of the 400 originally allotted in Lapid's plan. Moreover, it appears that rather than levying criminal sanctions upon Haredi youth who dodge the draft, most of the penalties will target the offending students' yeshivas in the form of withdrawing government budgetary support.

Strengthening governance: Three parties expressed their willingness to implement a significant departure in the typical manner of Israeli governance in order to strengthen the prime minister's ability to rule. Two reform clauses already agreed upon related to raising the electoral threshold for political parties seeking representation in the Knesset from 2 to 4 percent of the vote, as well as making it more difficult for the Knesset to bring down the government coalition. According to one of the agreements, a vote of no confidence in the governing coalition will remove it from power only if at least 70 MKs support the measure. At the same time, the various coalition parties have aired contradictory views regarding an additional proposal raised by Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. The proposal would make the leader of the Knesset's largest party the automatic candidate for forming a government coalition, instead of the current system of having leaving it up to the recommendation of a majority of Knesset members.

Divvying up government portfolios: All told, the negotiations over most of the cabinet positions are far from over. A senior Yesh Atid official has dubbed the ongoing coalition negotiations as "one big mess," while in a senior official in Habayit Hayehudi told Haaretz that "all the portfolios, excluding those intended for the party heads are still on the table at the moment." Until now, solid agreements have been reached for just four portfolios: the foreign affairs portfolio will be reserved for Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman after he resolves his court case, the finance portfolio will go to Lapid, the industry, trade and labor portfolio will go to Bennett and the justice portfolio will go to Livni.

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