As Midnight Deadline Looms |

Bennett Gives Coalition Ultimatum: Justice Ministry or Bust

As PM's deadline to gather 61-MK coalition runs out Wednesday at midnight, last potential partner, Habayit Hayehudi, makes big demand; Likud says it's a bluff.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s time to form a 61-MK coalition running out at midnight tonight, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett gave him an ultimatum yesterday: Hand over the justice portfolio or lose the premiership.

But sources in Netanyahu’s Likud party said they thought Bennett’s demand for the Justice Ministry was pure spin, aimed at allowing him to demand another senior portfolio in its place.

“Bennett knows how important the justice portfolio is to Netanyahu, and that the chances of him giving this portfolio are slim,” one said. “Presumably, this demand is aimed at allowing Bennett to ‘compromise’ later on the Foreign Ministry or another senior ministry.”

If Netanyahu doesn’t form a coalition by midnight tonight, he will forfeit his chance to remain prime minister. Moreover, he must have Habayit Hayehudi’s eight seats to attain the necessary 61-seat majority.

But the coalition agreements don’t actually have to be signed by midnight; it’s enough for Netanyahu to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he has the necessary 61 votes. He then has a week to actually present his government to the Knesset.

Bennett's goals

Bennett has two goals in the upcoming negotiations with Likud. One is to significantly upgrade the list of portfolios Netanyahu has offered his party. The second is to ensure that Habayit Hayehudi will retain a powerful position in the government even if Netanyahu later tries to bring Zionist Union into the coalition. Habayit Hayehudi MKs fear that Netanyahu will make such a bid within a few months, and that if he succeeds, he will oust them from the government.

Likud sources said there were two problems with giving the Justice Ministry to Habayit Hayehudi, which would probably give it to MK Ayelet Shaked.

“The first is that the justice minister will soon have to decide on who the next attorney general will be,” said one. “This is a very sensitive position, and Netanyahu has no interest in entrusting the task to Bennett or Shaked. The second problem is that Shaked is spearheading the battle to change the face of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu has thus far avoided a frontal confrontation with the court, and it’s not certain he wants this headache.”

After Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on Monday, the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi decided to up its demands. For hours yesterday, there was no contact at all between Habayit Hayehudi and Likud, as the former was furious over Netanyahu’s decision to give Shas chairman Arye Dery exclusive control over both the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbinical courts.

Following a stormy meeting Monday night, Habayit Hayehudi decided to dismantle its negotiating team and entrust the negotiations solely to Bennett. It authorized Bennett to make any decision, including remaining in the opposition – which would leave Netanyahu without a government.

If Netanyahu misses the deadline, Rivlin can give another Knesset member the chance to form a government. In such an eventuality, that person would be Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union, the second-largest faction in the Knesset. Herzog would have 28 days (compared to Netanyahu’s 42) to form a coalition. If he too were to fail, Knesset members would be entitled to propose another candidate to make an attempt. Sources in Habayit Hayehudi hinted that in this case, they would throw their weight behind another Likud MK.

If every effort to create a coalition were to fail, the president and Knesset speaker would be authorized to call a new election 90 days after the president announces that no MK had been able to form a government.

Likud sources acknowledged that Bennett’s negotiating power has increased now that he is the only potential coalition partner with whom Netanyahu hasn’t yet signed. In contrast, they said, Avigdor Lieberman’s surprise announcement on Monday that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would remain in opposition had little impact. Since Lieberman’s party has only six seats, Netanyahu would still need Bennett even if Yisrael Beiteinu had joined the coalition.

“Our goal from the outset was to bring in Bennett and Shas both, so each would serve as a counterweight to the other in forming the coalition,” a senior Likud official said. “But since Bennett became the last to sign the coalition agreements, he has Likud by the short hairs.”

On Monday, Likud made the deal it is offering Bennett public in a humiliating fashion, in an effort to pressure him into signing. Under this deal, Bennett would get the Education Ministry, with an expanded budget, and also serve as a member of the diplomatic-security cabinet. MK Uri Ariel would be housing minister, and also have responsibility for the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division, which handles most construction in the West Bank. Shaked would get the culture and sport portfolio, including responsibility for the Toto lottery. Finally, Habayit Hayehudi would get a deputy defense minister with responsibility for the Civil Administration in the West Bank, enabling it to bolster the settlements, and the chairmanship of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Likud to get lion's share of ministries

Since the law limits the number of cabinet ministers in the new government to 18, the understanding reached with Likud’s coalition partners is that cabinet members will be installed in two phases, with an initial 18 assuming their posts until the law is changed to allow additional ministers.

The new coalition agreements call, in the first phase, for Likud to have 10 ministers; Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party and Habayit Hayehudi to have two each; and Shas to have one minister.

In the second phase, assuming the law is changed, Likud will get two more spots around the cabinet table, while the other parties will each get one.

Other than Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, who will serve as deputy health minister from the outset, no deputy ministers will be appointed until after the law is changed. In practice, Litzman will have full day-to-day authority at the Health Ministry as there will be no senior minister serving above him.

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