President Rivlin Hints at Working to Include Yesh Atid in an Expanded Coalition

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Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid votes in the 2015 election, March 17, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

President Reuven Rivlin indicated on Sunday he would try to broker the entry of Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party into the next government. In his first day of coalition talks with the parties, Rivlin warned that a government broader than the envisioned right-religious one was needed to stave off the “pressures that Israel will face from its close friends in Europe and the United States in the next term.”

However, the likelihood of that happening seems slim at this point. Yesh Atid waged a campaign against the ultra-Orthodox to have them share the “burden” of living in Israel by serving in the army and working, and cutting their benefits. Haredi parties are seen as building blocks of the next government, and United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman and fellow MKs Moshe Gafni and Meir Porush rejected the possibility of serving in a broader coalition.

“For the sake of the honor of the politicians, such an idea cannot be entertained,” Porush said.

Rivlin made his remarks in his consultations with UTJ, which were part of the meetings he held on Sunday with representatives of six of the 10 parties in the incoming Knesset: Likud, Zionist Union, the Joint List of Arab parties, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas and UTJ.

Parties with a combined 51 Knesset members recommended that Rivlin pick Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next government. Zionist Union, with 24 MKs, recommended that its chairman Isaac Herzog be tapped instead, while Joint List’s 13 MKs announced they would not issue any recommendation to Rivlin, but would reconsider in the event the president chose Herzog rather than Netanyahu.

Rivlin is set to meet on Monday with representatives of the remaining parties, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz, to hear their recommendations. He is expected on Wednesday to announce his decision to appoint Netanyahu to form the government, after Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, presents the official election results to the president.

The possibility of Zionist Union joining the coalition is no longer on the table, as both it and Likud have declared that Herzog will not sit in a Netanyahu-led government. Zionist Union MK Eitan Cabel told Rivlin his party would lead the new opposition, while in a statement issued on Sunday Likud said that “had the prime minister wanted to turn to Herzog – which is out of the question in light of the deep ideological differences between Likud and the Labor Party – he would have done so himself.”

Figures in Likud, speaking on condition of anonymity, were critical of the statement released in Netanyahu’s name, saying that it only raised the price the various parties will demand in exchange for joining the coalition, since they now know the prime minister is not even trying to put together an alternative coalition, and are aware that Netanyahu genuinely needs them.

In his consultations, Rivlin seemed to be testing the boundaries of the coalition that Netanyahu could put together. He hinted that he would act to create a broad coalition and try to persuade Yesh Atid to return to a Netanyahu government. Rivlin asked the representatives of UTJ whether they would support a broader Netanyahu-led coalition than the one that appears to be coalescing, without mentioning Yesh Atid.

“The foreign policy issues and pressures that Israel will face from its close friends in Europe and the United States in the next term necessitate a broad government that will have the public’s support,” Rivlin said, hinting at the possibility of the ultra-Orthodox party joining a government that includes Yesh Atid.

But the Haredi lawmakers rebuffed the president. Gafni said there were certain parties UTJ would refuse to sit with. Litzman said his party would make advance knowledge of the members of a broader-than-expected coalition a condition of its participation. “Lapid humiliated us and beat us up,” Litzman said, adding, “There is no reason for us to be friends. You wouldn’t want friends like that and neither would I.”

Litzman earlier told Rivlin that his party would recommend Netanyahu for prime minister. “It’s no secret we endured two very difficult years with the previous government,” he said. “In addition to the damage to religious issues, there was also harm done to the [socioeconomically] weak and to the child stipends. We hope the next government is more mindful of social welfare.”

Litzman added that he hopes to “help the disadvantaged and people living in outlying regions of the country, and that the government lasts for a full term. That cannot be taken for granted.”

Shortly before their meeting with Rivlin, Litzman, Porush and Gafni met with Likud MKs Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, in a precursor to the official coalition negotiations that will begin only when the president makes his announcement. Elkin and Levin also met  with Shas chairman Arye Dery, who announced the composition of his party’s coalition negotiating team. Shas is demanding two cabinet positions in the next government, while at the same time refusing to let Netanyahu raise the number of cabinet posts. Likud figures say Shas cannot have more than one cabinet member unless the cabinet is expanded. Sources in Shas said on Sunday that the part will demand both the religious affairs and interior portfolios for Dery himself, in addition to having a minister in the Finance Ministry (not the position of finance minister) or at least a deputy finance ministry.