Netanyahu gets two more weeks to build coalition

Fri, Mar 1, 2013, 00:00

Israeli prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu will be granted a two-week extension tomorrow night by president Shimon Peres in order to form a government.

A month of arduous coalition negotiations have already taken place after Mr Netanyahu was given an initial month to cobble together a parliamentary majority, but so far only one small party has signed a coalition agreement.

Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, head of new centrist party the Movement, will serve as justice minister in the next government with responsibility for conducting peace talks with the Palestinians.

Israeli governments are always coalitions as no party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Today, Israel essentially has no large parties and this makes the task of coalition-building extremely difficult.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu list emerged as the biggest party after the January election with 31 seats. Together with the Movement’s six, this gives Mr Netanyahu the support of only 37 Knesset members, well short of a majority.

Netanyahu’s preference

Mr Netanyahu wanted a coalition made up of a large number of relatively weak small parties, but his efforts have so far failed. Two ultra-Orthodox parties refused to join the coalition over opposition to the plan to end the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service.

As a fall-back option Mr Netanyahu went all out to persuade Labour to join the government, even offering Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich the finance portfolio. However, after meetings Ms Yachimovich he said the differences between the parties mean Labour will lead the opposition.

This leaves the two parties that did surprisingly well in the election – the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), led by former television personality Yair Lapid, and the far-right Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett.

Parties’ similarities

Although the parties attracted a different electorate, both are led by young, charismatic leaders who stress the need for change. Both endorse a free-market economy and the importance of “sharing the burden”, Israeli parlance for forcing the ultra-Orthodox to either join the army or perform three years’ community service. Both leaders are also deeply distrustful of Mr Netanyahu.

They decided to join forces during coalition negotiations and presented Mr Netanyahu with an ultimatum: either we join the coalition together or we go into opposition together.

Avigdor Lieberman, number two on Mr Netanyahu’s list, warned that the two were attempting to set up “a government within a government.” But the alliance has held firm despite Mr Netanyahu trying every trick to coax either party, separately, into the coalition.

The most likely scenario is that both parties will join together before the new March 16th deadline, enabling Mr Netanyahu to present a coalition just before the March 22nd visit of US president Barack Obama.