Ultra-Orthodox Party Looks to Secure Stronghold on Government Amid Coalition Talks

United Torah Judaism hopes to push its religious agenda, as Netanyahu signals he has no intentions of naming far-right settler leader Bezalel Smotrich as justice minister

Eli Yishai announces his pulling out of the Knesset race to support United Torah Judaism, Jerusalem, March 27, 2019.
Nir Keidar

As coalition talks go into high gear after the Passover holiday, the main ultra-Orthodox party has reportedly set its sights on the Construction and Housing Ministry or the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry — in addition to retaining the health portfolio and control of the Knesset Finance Committee.

United Torah Judaism will go into the talks with high expectations, which includes maintaining the status quo regarding conversions to Judaism, increasing yeshiva budgets and increasing the enforcement by local governments of prohibitions on opening convenience stores on Shabbat.

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Late last week, Yahad party chairman Eli Yishai claimed that in return for dropping out of the race shortly before the election and supporting United Torah Judaism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered him a cabinet portfolio in the next government. Likud, Yishai’s former party Shas and even UTJ all said they knew nothing about such promise although members of that party did not rule out the possibility of talks between Netanyahu and Yishai.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has offered Moshe Kahlon to continue as finance minister if the Kulanu leader rejoins Likud, which he left four years ago, political sources said.

Kahlon is striving to secure Kulanu legislators good positions in the cabinet and Knesset committees, but Netanyahu reportedly has not been quick to respond. The negotiations are expected to continue.

Kahlon was a Knesset member for Likud from 2003 to 2013, making a mark as communications minister toward the end of that tenure. In 2015 he formed his center-right Kulanu party.

Netanyahu’s offer came in a meeting last week before the long holiday weekend that included the last day of Passover.

It was their first talk since Netanyahu’s Likud tied Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan at 35 seats in the April 9 general election. Among parties that qualified for seats, Kulanu tied for last with four seats.

This coming week Netanyahu is expected to meet with the Union of Right-Wing Parties. For now Netanyahu has no intentions of naming one of the alliance’s leaders, Bezalel Smotrich, justice minister.

He has already decided to name another leader of the alliance, Rafi Peretz, education minister, and will try to persuade Smotrich to take an expanded housing portfolio, political sources said.

The Union of Right-Wing Parties, which won five seats on April 9, has asked for the justice and education ministries.

Likud intends to hear all the demands of its expected coalition partners before publishing its own demands.