Right-wing parties Yamina and New Hope have been negotiating with Yesh Atid in recent days in the hope of establishing a government within a few weeks.
However, senior figures in the bloc of parties seeking to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not sure whether they will be able to form a coalition that will win the Knesset's vote of confidence.
According to one source involved in the talks, “both sides want to form this government and are prepared to show significant flexibility to make it happen, but it’s clear to us that there are differences that must still be bridged.”
Progress in these discussions is apparently slower than the media sometimes presents it. “There are too many 'spins' in the air right now,” a member of the so-called bloc for change said. “Likud wants to thwart our talks and is trying to make headlines that will make us quarrel. It’s also important for [Yamina leader and MK Naftali] Bennett to present achievements to justify joining forces with the leftist parties,” he added.
Three potential coalition partners are not actually sitting around the negotiating table: At present Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz are being represented by Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid, and they will either have to make do with or reject any deal he strikes with the two right-wing parties, Yamina and New Hope – some aspects of which will be hard for them to swallow. Any such deal will probably not address diplomatic issues to allow parties that have totally opposite views on such matters to join a coalition.
The main questions that will determine whether this coalition will actually come about remain unanswered: Will the largely Arab Joint List or the United Arab List agree to support a government headed by Bennett? Will Bennett agree to be supported by them? Will Labor and Meretz join a coalition that, at Bennett’s request, will be dubbed “center-right”?
“It's not as if there is no possibility of forming that kind of government,” a senior figure in the bloc for change told Haaretz. “But what are its chances? Hard to say.”
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Divisive disputes over ministerial portfolios
In the past few days, the parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc have begun to piece together the ministerial portfolio puzzle. One of the main disputes here is over the total number of ministers in the future government.
“Lapid wants a narrow government of 18 ministers, as he pledged in the election, but he’ll apparently have to compromise on a larger number,” one source who is familiar with the talks said. According to another source, “Bennett wanted his votes to carry double weight in the coalition to allow him to steer it to the right but his request will apparently not be accepted.”
The division of portfolios has also not been resolved. Bennett would serve first as prime minister with Lapid acting as his deputy, and Lapid would then replace Bennett as part of a rotation deal, apparently after two years. At the outset, Lapid would likely be foreign minister. At present the parties are clashing over the Defense Ministry: Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz, who currently fills that post, wants to continue to do so although New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar’s name has also come up for the job if he does not opt for the Justice Ministry.
Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has apparently set his sights on the finance portfolio, but Labor has also demanded it. If the top treasury post is not available, Labor plans to ask for the Justice Ministry, but they might eventually accept the Economy Ministry; Labor has also mentioned the interior and education portfolios. In addition, both lawmaker Yifat Shasha-Biton (New Hope) and Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz have said they would seek the education portfolio in a future coalition. For her part, Yamina's Ayelet Shaked has also been mentioned as a candidate for justice minister, a post she held in the past, or to head the Interior Ministry. But one source familiar with the negotiations says “Yamina has signaled that Shaked would not be returning to the Justice Ministry.”
The parties in the bloc for change are also arguing over the way the negotiations are being handled. One senior politician said the way Lapid was conducting himself was suspicious, and voiced concern that at the moment of truth, Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz would all have to accept controversial policies agreed to with Bennett. In contrast, another source said: “Lapid is fine. He is coordinated with us and watches out for the interests of his partners.”
Yamina and New Hope are worried about Lapid's conduct in the past few weeks. “Ever since the election, we have felt more than once that Lapid’s not really into it. We had the impression that he had a major interest in having the election in an attempt to revitalize Yesh Atid at the expense of Sa’ar and the left wing parties,” said one Knesset member who asked not to be identified.
In any case, the anti-Netanyahu camp says that if they do manage to form a coalition, it would deal mainly with economic issues and repairing the damage inflicted by the coronavirus crisis. It will agree to remain ambiguous and maintain the status quo on other issues to prevent its collapse.
“It’s clear to all of us that if such a coalition comes about," one of the sources said, "that there will be no peace negotiations during its tenure, and there will be no dramatic changes on issues of religion and state, nor will civil marriage be enacted. All sides know very well that they would have to change their outlook for the coming years.”