Netanyahu Rivals Hope to Reach Coalition Deal by Tuesday, but Talks Plagued by Disagreements

Anti-Netanyahu parties remain divided on allocation of ministerial portfolios, issues of religion and state, and how to ensure an ideologically diverse prospective cabinet can function

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Naftali Bennett gives a statement, this week.
Naftali Bennett gives a statement, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

With less than a week left for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cobble together a new government, negotiating teams from Yamina, Yesh Atid and New Hope held intensive talks on Thursday in an attempt to reach an agreement on forming an alternative coalition.

Yamina and New Hope are hoping to reach an understanding before Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires, possibly as soon as Saturday – but Yesh Atid is opposed to this. Yamina and Yesh Atid have therefore marked next Tuesday as the date by which they hope to reach an agreement. Netanyahu’s mandate will expire at the end of Tuesday.

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Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett have been talking continuously in recent days. “There is no point in closing a deal now,” said a Yesh Atid source. “It’s best to reach agreements at the last moment.”

“Chances are still 50-50,” a source familiar with the negotiations said. “It all hinges on a basic decision Bennett has to make, on whether he wants to go for a government of change or to give up this move. Besides this basic decision, there are still some serious gaps between the sides, but it looks like they can be bridged.”

Mistrust is plaguing the effort to reach a deal. Yesh Atid, Labor, and Meretz – parties on the center-left and left – view the conduct of the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties with suspicion. Senior figures in these three parties have expressed their concern that not all 13 members of Bennett’s and Sa’ar’s parties would agree to join a coalition with them. In light of these fears, Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked and New Hope’s Yoaz Hendel said Wednesday that they would join a unity government should their parties choose to and would not split from them.

Yair Lapid holds a press conference earlier this month.Credit: Emil Salman

Meanwhile, Lapid associates are worried that if Bennett tasked with forming a government by President Reuven Rivlin next week, he might continue talks with Netanyahu in an attempt to form a right-wing coalition. Lapid will therefore insist on getting the mandate himself if talks between Yesh Atid and Yamina are not concluded by Tuesday night.

During the talks, Lapid has agreed to compromise on the size of the next cabinet and the number of portfolios given to Yamina and New Hope. Lapid has expressed willingness to include 24 ministers in the next cabinet, after previously saying he wanted a cabinet with no more than 18 ministers.

The problems holding up the talks

Negotiating teams are trying to resolve a host of problems. Some of these relate to the allocation of portfolios in a new government, while others relate to attempts to prevent paralysis resulting from the dramatic differences in policy goals among the parties making up this coalition.

The negotiations are complicated: seven parties from both sides of the aisle need to decide on the allocation of portfolios and about the new government’s basic policies.

One of the major problems relates to posts allocated to New Hope. “Gideon Sa’ar has a problem,” said a source in Yamina. “According to the allocation of one cabinet post per three Knesset members, only he and Yifat Shasha-Biton will become cabinet members. Senior party members Ze’ev Elkin and Yoaz Hendel are not expected to get significant posts. Elkin may agree to become Knesset speaker, but Yesh Atid has designated their Meir Cohen for the job, and they may not budge on this issue.”

According to a source in the center-left bloc, “it’s clear that we’ll have to compensate New Hope, but we can’t allow Sa’ar to get four cabinet posts if he has only six Knesset seats. What would Meretz say, as they too have six seats, if they get only one cabinet position, or Labor if it gets two positions with seven Knesset members?”

Gideon Sa'ar at a New Hope meeting, this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Yamina and New Hope have meanwhile been looking at the possibility of joining forces in order to ostensibly increase Bennett’s faction, thus deflecting criticism of the prospect of him serving as prime minister while leading a party with only seven lawmakers.

Another issue impeding the conclusion of a deal is an attempt to make its prospective cabinet an effective body. “We’re trying to establish a mechanism that will enable such a coalition to function,” said a source in one of the parties. “From the security cabinet downwards, we need to avoid the paralysis of different systems. According to a source in Yamina, Bennett’s demand to have an extra vote in order to make the government more right-wing has been taken off the table. Instead, each side will have equal power, with the security cabinet composed of an equal number of representatives from each. Bennett and Lapid will have veto rights on any cabinet decision, just as Netanyahu and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz currently have.

An additional problem relates to how the parties can carry platform goals without triggering a coalition crisis. “Bennett knows there will be no [West Bank] annexation, and that his reform of the justice system will not happen,” said one source. “Both sides know that they’ll need to compromise on issues of religion and state. [Meretz Chairman] Nitzan Horowitz wants to promote a law on surrogacy for same-sex couples, but he knows this is problematic. Full civil marriage is also a problem and will not happen in this coalition.

“We’re now trying to establish what will be on the agenda and what won’t, what will be advanced by this government and what will have to wait,” said the source. One senior member involved in the talks criticized Gantz, who is encouraging and circulating media reports about the proposal that he serve as prime minister first in a so-called rotation deal with Netanyahu. “Gantz still dreams of being prime minister, but everyone knows he’s mainly trying to create some leverage for joining the ‘change bloc’ coalition,” the source says. “His conduct is strange. The sides have already agreed, more or less, that his main demand of being defense minister has been accepted.”

A more essential problem is whether right-wing parties will agree to rely on the Joint List alliance of three majority-Arab parties or the United Arab List in order to form a government. “Without this there is no coalition,” said a source in one of the parties. “Bennett and Sa’ar would not have devoted all this energy into forming a coalition if they weren’t willing to accept relying on Arab parties, but we’ll know this for sure only when they decide to go for this coalition.” Bennett, who met United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas the other day, said recently in closed meetings that if an agreement is reached, he’ll “know how to contend” with the need to rely on Arab parties.

“Most of the public won’t like the government that is formed,” a source familiar with the negotiations told Haaretz. “There will be initial enthusiasm over a government without Netanyahu, but all the coalition partners will take a lot of flak from all directions.”

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