Bennett Threatens to Quit Coalition if Justice Portfolio Is Given to Zionist Union

Amid rumors of ongoing negotiations between Netanyahu and Herzog on national unity government, Habayit Hayehudi chairman says his party views justice portfolio as key to its agenda.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a meeting, February 16, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Habayit Hayehudi will bolt the coalition if the justice portfolio is taken from Ayelet Shaked and given to Zionist Union to lure it into the government, party leader Naftali Bennett warned Monday.

“If they take the justice portfolio away, we’re out,” he said in private conversations. Bennett was quoted as saying, “We see the justice portfolio as a significant issue that parallels changing the government guidelines, and not just a job. It’s not a personal issue. If they take justice away from us, we won’t sit in the coalition.”

This is the first ultimatum Bennett has issued since recent reports that said efforts were being made to bring Zionist Union into the coalition. But it’s not the first time he’s flexed his muscles against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) on the issue. During the coalition negotiations a year ago, he conditioned his party’s entering the coalition on Shaked being named justice minister.

Bennett sees the justice portfolio as a crucial way of advancing the right-wing and religious-Zionist agenda. As justice minister, Shaked has become a key arm of the party in its struggle to change the face of the Supreme Court.

The contacts between Netanyahu and Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog were halted a few weeks ago, when it became known that the police were questioning Herzog about possible campaign funding violations. But Zionist Union believes that if the case is closed, as the media are reporting, he will reconsider the move.

A senior minister said Netanyahu believes that if he doesn’t expand the coalition by the time the Knesset recess ends in three weeks’ time, his 61-member coalition will start to crumble.

A senior Likud official involved in the contacts with Herzog said the justice portfolio was indeed on the table. Likud members believe the portfolio would help Herzog convince Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister, to agree to join the government.

On Monday, Channel 10 reported that Shelly Yacimovich was also interested in the justice portfolio, but was against joining the current coalition. Yacimovich and Livni reportedly vetoed joining the government after Herzog presented them the plan he and Netanyahu formulated.

A knowledgeable Likud source told Haaretz that the offer to Zionist Union includes a promise to upgrade the status of about 15 of the Zionist Union's 24 Knesset members, with seven or eight of them being given cabinet posts. Others would be appointed deputy ministers, three would be chairpersons of Knesset committees and two deputy chairpersons. Herzog would be expected to assume the role that his Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni had in Netanyahu's last government as chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians. In Herzog's case, he would also be expected to be appointed to the coveted post of foreign minister.

But Likud is also expected to make two demands that will be difficult for the Zionist Union to accept: The government's current policy guidelines would not be substantially altered and the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi would not be removed from the governing coalition. Likud officials think it is possible, however, that Habayit Hayehudi, which is headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, might choose to go into opposition if the Zionist Union joined the government.