It has been more than a month since the Israeli elections and so far all Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to show for his coalition building efforts is a new justice minister, Tzipi Livni. Add to that the fact that Kadima is supposed to offer its two seats in the coming days and Netanyahu is still 22 seats shy of claiming the slimmest of majorities–61 seats–in the Knesset.
This standstill has initiated whispers of a new election in the country as Netanyahu has only until the middle of March (which includes a standard 14-day extension) to present a stable coalition. Should he fail to do so, either another party will be given a chance to form a government, or new elections will be called.
Associates of Netanyahu told Israel Hayom on Wednesday that he was determined to secure the support of 57 Knesset Members — comprising the members of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, Hatnuah, Kadima and the ultra-Orthodox parties — before turning to Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party.
But over at Habayit Hayehudi, party members stressed that the party’s alliance with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was intact and Netanyahu would not be able divide it. Bennett and Lapid are refusing to enter the coalition unless Netanyahu agrees to their joint demand that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community be stripped of its exemption from serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They warned that if Habayit Hayehudi did not enter the coalition new elections might have to be called.
But Shas, the major Ultra-Orthodox party, is opposed to this. Wednesday, Eli Yishai, who leads the party, said he believed Shas would sign a coalition agreement next week or the following week. “Progress is being made, but we are still far from finalizing everything; this includes the military draft issue and budgetary matters.”
As Lapid has made it known that he intends to be prime minister in the near future, Netanyahu is said to be pulling farther away from the idea of having him in the government. This is another reason the prime minister is intent on prying Bennett from Lapid’s grip. Likud party members have already gone public with their calls for Bennett to join with Netanyahu, with MK Danny Danon urging him Thursday to join Netanyahu’s coalition, saying, “I call on Naftali Bennett to stick to the values of the right and the national camp and to keep his promise to his voters to join the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Bennett, who spoke at a gathering of the National Religious Party Convention (part of the party apparatus that governs Habayit Hayehudi) raised the possibility that his party would join the opposition.
“We want to help Netanyahu and lend a hand; we understand the complexities in running the most complex country in the world,” Israel Hayom quoted him as saying. “For years, the Likud and the national-religious camp had a natural partnership. During the last campaign we were brutally assaulted and as a result this bond has become somewhat looser. But it is not too late to mend fences. They wanted to have us assume, once again, the role of a non-commissioned army chaplain, but we are no longer in that position. We are going to have a leadership position, or else we will not participate.”
Bennett also said, “The path the government embarks on will ultimately determine whether it would tackle the actual problems facing Israel. We can be the most the reliable and dedicated partner inside the coalition, but if we stay out, that would not be the end of the world. I call on the prime minister: seize the moment.”
Bennett attacked Netanyahu’s partnership with Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni: “Are we going to let a person who has already declared she would divide Jerusalem and give up Ariel run the peace process? The makeup of this government will decide whether this government is a government of opportunity with renewed strengths or a government of missed opportunities. The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court.”
In response, Hatnuah issued a statement saying, “Livni has never made concessions on Ariel or discussed the division of Jerusalem during negotiations; rather, she defended Israel’s national interests.”
Bennett also went after the ultra-Orthodox issue. “One of the windows that is being closed is the window for reaching a real solution that would integrate the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society,” he said. “Some call that ‘an equal sharing of the burden,’ but I would prefer to call it ‘letting the haredim get out of the cage they are trapped in.’ Historical circumstances have condemned them to a life of poverty through no fault of their own. This has not happened in other haredi communities around the world; it only happened in Israel,” he said.