Netanyahu brings new gov’t to Peres, taps Ya’alon for defense

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Shimon Peres that he formed a government coalition.

The leaders met Saturday night at the president's residence in Jerusalem, one day after Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett — leaders of the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties, respectively — signed a contract with Netanyahu on Friday, ending negotiations that had been under way since the Jan. 22 election.

The coalition will include 68 of the Knesset's 120 parliamentarians. The new government is expected to be sworn in on Sunday.

Yesh Atid and Jewish Home join the Likud-Beiteinu faction led by Netanyahu. Hatnua, chaired by Tzipi Livni, also is on board.

“We are standing before a decisive year in terms of security, economy and in efforts to progress peace,” Netanyahu told Peres. “The citizens of Israel wanted change. This government shows cooperation, and I believe that we will be able to bring news in all these fields to all the citizens of Israel. That is my mission and I know that it is your prayer.”

Netanyahu on Sunday named former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon as defense minister. The prime minister was scheduled to meet Sunday with other Likud lawmakers to assign ministerial positions and committee chairmanships.

A statement issued Saturday by the White House congratulated Netanyahu on forming a new government in advance of President Obama's visit on March 20.

“President Obama looks forward to working closely with the Prime Minister and the new government to address the many challenges we face and advance our shared interest in peace and security,” the statement said. “The United States places a high value on its deep and enduring bonds with Israel and the Israeli people. The President looks forward to further strengthening those bonds when he travels to Israel next week to meet with Israeli officials and to speak directly with the Israeli people.”

Netanyahu, with team of rivals, puts together a government

He’s had to bite a few bullets to get there, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lead Israel’s next government.

Barring a last-minute surprise, Israel’s new governing coalition will be sworn in this week: a center-right grouping of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu faction, the centrist Yesh Atid party, the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, the center-left Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni and the tiny, centrist Kadima.

In total, the coalition will include 70 of the Knesset’s 120 members.

The government’s priorities will be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, enact budget reform, expand Israel’s mandatory military conscription and lower the cost of living, according to Netanyahu.

“Above all,” Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, the next government must address “the major security challenges that are piling up around us.”

The coalition deal is a bittersweet victory for the prime minister. He won a disappointing 31 seats at the ballot box in January. Now that divided vote has turned into a divided government that he’ll have to lead with ambitious rivals by his side.

Those divisions have grown more intense since the election, as Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett formed an alliance after the vote.

“He’s a much weaker prime minister,” said Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri. “We see the emergence of two popular leaders who are not constrained by internal party institutions and can dictate to their own parties whatever policies they wish.”

By forming the coalition days before his final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu gets another term as prime minister. And because his party will control the Foreign and Defense ministries — Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon slated to be the next defense minister – Netanyahu will be able to preserve the status quo regarding security issues and Iran.

And Israelis shouldn’t expect a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. Hatnua supports a two-state solution, while Jewish Home resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, as do many in Likud.

“I don’t think there is any chance of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians,” Avineri said, but “partial agreements” could be possible.

Netanyahu will serve as foreign minister while former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s No. 2, fights corruption charges. Should he be acquitted, he will return to the post. Lapid, who has said he wants to be prime minister, had fought hard in negotiations for the foreign minister post.

In managing his coalition, Netanyahu’s biggest challenge will be including haredi Orthodox men in Israel’s mandatory draft – one of Israel’s burning political issues. Yesh Atid campaigned on a platform of drafting almost all haredi men, who currently receive exemptions if they stay in yeshiva. Along with Bennett, a pro-settler Zionist who strongly favors haredi conscription, Lapid has been pushing for a strict draft law.

Not wanting to alienate the haredim – a traditional support base for Netanyahu – the prime minister has pushed for a more lenient version. The compromise, according to the latest Israeli reports, will be that haredim will be subject to the draft at age 22, not 18, like the rest of Israelis. And up to 2,000 haredim will continue to receive exemptions, far higher than the limit of 400 that Lapid had sought.

“The new political leaders are capable of reaching an agreement that will gradually change the rules of the game,” Bar-Ilan University political science professor Eytan Gilboa said.
Avineri says he’s skeptical the haredim will obey any draft law reached without the imprimatur of the haredi parties.

“The only way of seriously extending the haredi draft is to do it with negotiations with at least one of the haredi parties, and getting a wishy-washy compromise,” Avineri said. “You’re not going get it by drafting thousands of haredim against their will.”

Draft reform is one of Lapid’s signature issues, but his harder task may be succeeding as finance minister. For this a media personality who decided to enter politics a little more than a year ago with a campaign that promised commonsense policies and “new politics,” it will be a challenge to maintain his appeal while actually being a politician.

Lapid’s campaign slogan was “Where’s the money?” and he promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. Facing a budget deficit of $10 billion, Lapid may become the face of some unpopular spending cuts or tax hikes.

That could condemn the fate of Lapid’s Yesh Atid to that of other Israeli centrist parties that flared and then burned out. Kadima, for example, dominated Israeli politics after Ariel Sharon founded it in 2005, and it won 28 seats in the previous elections, in 2009. But this year it squeaked into the Knesset with just two.

“Lapid is in danger,” said Hebrew University professor Gideon Rahat. “What happened to the rest of the centrist parties is they disappeared in two or three years. But if he does things differently, he may be able to hold on.”

For his part, the ambitious Bennett, formerly Netanyahu’s chief of staff, reportedly does not get along with the prime minister. Personal rivalries could cause rifts in the government should Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu disagree on sensitive issues.

“There are too many internal coalitions inside this coalition,” Gilboa said. “The prime minister is not good at resolving coalition disagreements.”

Netanyahu’s main threat, however, may come from outside of the coalition. Usually part of the government, the Knesset’s haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – have been excluded this term because they oppose drafting haredim. They have vowed to fight the coalition tooth and nail. The opposition leader will be Labor, with whom the haredi parties share support for progressive economic policies.

Gilboa said that Israeli public support of draft reform will drown out haredi protest.

“I think the haredim will fight the government on economic issues, but I think the Israeli public in general will support reforms,” he said. “But I would advise the new politicians to go slowly and cautiously.”

With time running out to form a government, Netanyahu facing tough choices

When he emerged bruised but unbeaten following the Jan. 22 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced some tough choices.

Should he aim for a narrow, right-wing governing coalition comprised of haredi Orthodox, nationalist and religious Zionist parties that would give him a narrow majority of 61 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset?

Or should he tack to the center, building a broader coalition comprised of some parties to the left of his Likud-Beiteinu faction and some to his right? Throw in a couple of small parties and Netanyahu could have a solid majority of 70 seats.

But things quickly got messy.

Beset by a mix of personal feuds and policy differences, the prime minister has had trouble forming a government, and on Saturday evening he had to ask Israeli President Shimon Peres for an extension on the deadline to assemble his coalition.

If Netanyahu can’t figure out the puzzle soon, someone else may get a shot at coalition building — or Israel quickly could return to the polls.

For now, chances remain slim that Netanyahu, a political survivor, will blow his chance at another term as prime minister.

The 70-seat option – a coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid (19 seats), the religious Zionist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett (12 seats), the center-left Hatnua party led by Tzipi Livni (six seats) and the tiny Kadima party (two seats) – might still happen.

The price, however, is a government committed to including haredi Jews in Israel’s mandatory draft, a burning political issue in Israel and the condition of entry into the coalition set by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home.

For Netanyahu, the problem is that would leave his traditional coalition partners, the haredi parties, in the cold. For the last four years, the haredi parties have kept his government stable and yielded to him on security issues.

Since the January elections, coalition negotiations have played out like a soap opera. Israeli newspapers reported that Netanyahu didn’t much like Jewish Home’s Bennett, who used to be his chief of staff until the two parted on bad terms.

Then, days after the vote, Lapid, a political neophyte whose new Yesh Atid party emerged to become the second-largest party in parliament in its first election contest, told Channel 2 TV, “I assume I'll be prime minister after the next election.”

Netanyahu shot back by aiming for a broader coalition with the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that would shut out Bennett and dilute the influence of Lapid, who had made clear before the election that he expected to join Netanyahu’s coalition. But newly emboldened, Lapid and Bennett entered into an alliance, forging an agreement on drafting haredim and declaring that they would either both join the coalition or both stay out. Together, their 31 seats equal those of Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu faction.

When Netanyahu countered with a more lenient haredi draft proposal of his own, they stood their ground. On Feb. 20, Bennett said, “It would be no tragedy if we sit in the opposition.” Lapid echoed the sentiment last weekend in a Facebook post.

“That’s how it is in democracy,” Lapid wrote. “Nobody likes to lose, but everyone accepts the basic principle that sometimes you’re in the coalition and sometimes in the opposition.”

So Netanyahu turned back to the haredim. But even with Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (seven seats), Netanyahu still needs more partners to pass the 60-seat threshold. So far, Netanyahu has signed only one coalition partner — Livni's Hatnua – and she’s a pretty strange bedfellow. Livni based her campaign on vehement criticism, from the left, of Netanyahu’s peace negotiation policies. Now she’s in charge of the Netanyahu government’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Even with Livni and the haredi parties, Netanyahu still has just 55 seats — six short of the majority he needs to govern.

With the exception of the Arab parties and the staunchly left-wing Meretz party, Netanyahu has been open to all comers. He even has tried to woo Likud’s traditional rival, Labor. But the center-left Labor (15 seats) led by Shelly Yachimovich, who is committed to liberal economic policies, appears determined to lead the opposition. Yachimovich has refused all of Netanyahu’s offers.

On Saturday night, the prime minister blamed “those who have ganged up on me” for the failed negotiations. And at his Cabinet meeting on Sunday, he said that as Israel’s enemies “are coming together and uniting their efforts, we must come together and unite our forces in order to repel these dangers. I regret that this is not happening.”

Time is running out. Racing against a final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu may have to accede to a government without haredi parties and the leeway they have given him. So long as Netanyahu has not threatened haredi priorities — social welfare, funding for yeshivas and draft exemptions – they have given Netanyahu a free hand to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, the Palestinians and the world as he saw fit.

Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, by contrast, have positions on everything from peace negotiations to housing policy and the haredi draft that differ from Netanyahu’s. If he goes with them, it looks to be a rough ride.

The hawkish Bennett already has expressed strong opposition to the Hatnua coalition deal, and the parties still must haggle over who gets what ministerial position. Lapid reportedly is holding out for foreign minister, a post formerly held by Netanyahu’s No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, until Liberman was indicted on corruption charges and resigned last year. Now Liberman is asking Netanyahu to reserve the post for him should he be acquitted.

“I intend to form a strong and stable government in the days ahead,” Netanyahu said this week in a speech delivered via video to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

How he’ll get there remains far from clear.

Obama congratulates Netanyahu in phone call

President Obama congratulated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on winning the most seats in the next Knesset and said he looked forward to working with the new government.

“President Obama spoke today by telephone with Prime Minister Netanyahu to congratulate him on his party’s success in winning a plurality of Knesset seats in Israel’s recent election,” said a White House statement issued Monday. “The President indicated that the United States looks forward to working with the next government. He also reiterated his commitment to the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel, and pledged to work closely with Israel on our shared agenda for peace and security in the Middle East.”

Netanyahu's Likud Beiteinu list won 31 seats in last week's national elections for the 19th Knesset, and the right-wing religious bloc it leads garnered 61 seats — the barest majority needed to rule.

Netanyahu, however, has indicated he would prefer setting up a coalition with centrist parties.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for President Shimon Peres confirmed to JTA a report on Israel's Channel 10 news that Peres invited Obama to visit Israel in June, when Peres is convening a conference of world presidents and marking his 90th birthday.

White House spokesmen did not respond to queries as to whether Obama had accepted.

Obama did not visit Israel during his first term as president, which drew tough criticism from his rivals in the last election campaign.

Few U.S. presidents have visited Israel in their first term, but Obama's failure to visit was perceived by some as a snub because of his visits to Islamic countries.

Poll: Center-left bloc could tie Netanyahu-led bloc at 46 seats

Israel could see a left-wing coalition to match the right-wing bloc’s 46 projected seats, according to the last poll before Jan. 22 elections.

The poll, based on a survey of 1,000 adults, predicts 32 seats for the united Likud-Beiteinu ticket, 14 seats for Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and two seats for Otzma Le’Israel, an ultra-rightist party.

This constellation could be matched by the left-wing’s predicted 46 seats through a union of Labor’s predicted 17 seats,  Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party's 13, and 16 seats combined for Hatnua, Meretz and Kadima.

But this alliance is not assured. Unlike Livni and Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, Lapid has not ruled out joining a coalition led by Netanyahu.

Shas and Torah Judaism , both haredi Orthodox parties, garnered a total of 17 seats in the poll, which was published by Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday, the last day before elections in which media are permitted by law to publish polling results.

A total of eleven seats went to Israel’s two Arab parties, Balad and Ra’am Ta’al, and to the leftist Hadash party.

The poll had an error margin of 0.9 seats for a two-seat party and up to 3.2 seats in the case of Likud-Beiteinu.

Netanyahu, right-wing coalition seen likely to prevail in Israeli elections

Uncertainty is an inherent condition of democratic politics, but one outcome is all but certain in next week’s Israeli elections: the right wing will win and the left wing will lose.

Almost every party acknowledges that the merged Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu factions will take the most seats and be the standard-bearer of the next coalition government. For the fifth straight election, the center-left Labor will likely lose as Likud or an offshoot runs the state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Likud prime minister, almost definitely will win another term. Likud-Beiteinu is expected to amass 33 to 38 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, nearly twice as many as the likely runner-up, Labor, which should receive 17 to 20.

The virtual certainty of this outcome, and the right-wing's bold self-assurance in the face of it, has reduced a fragmented center-left to shambles. Labor and two new parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, have similar agendas focused largely on socioeconomic issues, yet every unification effort has ended in recriminations. And only Hatnua among the three parties has anything to say about the diplomatic future of the state, and it's led by a former rising star of the right.

Netanyahu’s biggest challenge leading up to the Jan. 22 election has come not from his traditional sparring partners on the left but from the right, where the hawkish Jewish Home Party has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the polls.

The ascent of Jewish Home has been the biggest story of the campaign. When elections were called in October, pundits expected the religious Zionist party to win seven or eight seats. Now most polls have the number at 14 or 15 — on track to be the Knesset’s third-largest party.

Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett, a newcomer to politics following a high-tech career and leadership positions in the settler movement, has engineered the gain by courting secular right-wing voters and adopting some progressive economic policies.

But Bennett is no moderate. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state under any conditions and has said he would disobey a military command to dismantle settlements, though he later walked back from that position.

The party’s fortunes will depend on whether voters trust Bennett’s promises of tighter security and cheaper housing, or remain wary of a party that skews far right on certain national security and religious questions.

As the fortunes of Jewish Home have risen, those of Yesh Atid have declined. Expected to be a major story of the campaign when it launched in April, Yesh Atid was founded by Yair Lapid, a former television journalist and son of the late secularist politician Tommy Lapid. But its poll numbers have fallen due to infighting in the centrist camp and Lapid's unwillingness to discuss diplomatic and security issues.

Polls now show the party taking about 10 seats, but if Yesh Atid gains 12 or 13, it will mean that Lapid’s economic message has struck a chord as Israel confronts a budget deficit of more than $10 billion.

If voters perceive Lapid as unprincipled or inexperienced, especially on matters of diplomacy and security, they may turn to the one centrist party focused on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations: Hatnua, which was founded and is led by Tzipi Livni, a former Kadima head and ex-Likud minister.

Livni has spent the entire campaign bashing Netanyahu for his alarmist and isolating rhetoric on national security. But she has not vowed to oppose his coalition and could give him cover to move forward on negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians if he chooses.

Hatnua has polled similar numbers to Yesh Atid. If it reaches the teens, it could indicate that a constituency still exists that supports peace negotiations. A mediocre Hatnua showing would confirm the perception of many Israelis that the conflict will not be resolved in the coming years.

What Livni really wants is a coalition without Netanyahu led by her or Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich. Seeking to harness the energy of 2011’s social protests here, Labor has presented itself as the alternative to Likud-Beiteinu. Yachimovich said recently that she would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition in a move that would seem to consign Labor to the opposition.

Labor has avoided discussing Israel’s diplomatic future, which seems to have disaffected some voters, and almost certainly will take fewer than 25 seats. That would be an improvement on last election’s 13 but still a decline for a party that once dominated Israeli politics.

As Livni, Lapid, Yachimovich and Bennett jockey for potential spots in a Likud-led Cabinet, one political bloc's numbers will likely remain fairly stable: Haredi Orthodox parties have 15 seats now, a number that is expected to slightly increase. The haredi platform, however, has become increasingly unpopular, as more and more Israelis oppose full-time yeshiva students receiving government stipends while avoiding the nation's mandatory military conscription — concerns that have animated Yesh Atid’s campaign, among others.

A sliver of hope does exist for a centrist victory, with Livni and Yachimovich still campaigning as if they have a shot at the premiership. According to two polls, approximately 20 percent of voters remain undecided. If they all go to centrist parties, the centrists may be able to cobble together a governing coalition.

At this point, though, it looks like a fantasy for Labor, which leaves it in the same place it’s been since 2001: figuring out how to fit into a Knesset where the right runs the show.