Haggling at fever pitch as Bibi seeks coalition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has one week left to form a government and, although the outlines of the new coalition are now becoming clear, he still has major differences with his two main future partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi.

Last Saturday, Mr Netanyahu received a two-week extension from President Shimon Peres in which to build a coalition.

No new party has joined the next government since Hatnuah signed an agreement with Likud-Beiteinu two weeks ago, and the major breakthrough so far has been that, against his wishes, Mr Netanyahu has accepted that he will not be able to include the Charedi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism in his government.

Their exclusion is the result of the agreement between Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi leaders Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett to jointly pursue an agenda of civil legislation against Charedi interests and to demand that Mr Netanyahu form a relatively small government.

Lapid and Bennett pursuing agenda of civil legislation against Charedi interests

On Sunday, the Prime Minister criticised the two parties over their ultimatum against the Charedi parties, saying that, while Israel has to face Iran, which is rapidly nearing nuclear capability, “we must stick together and unify our forces to push back these dangers. When our enemies are getting together, we must be unified and I regret it is not happening.”

Charedi leaders were especially scathing of Mr Bennett, whose party represents the West Bank settlers, and threatened to recommend spending cuts in the settlements when the new government finally gets around to debating its budget.

The main sticking points now are the size of the new cabinet and who will take the key portfolios.

Mr Lapid is demanding that the cabinet should contain no more than 18 ministers, to save money — a demand that will mean that a number of current Likud ministers will be relegated to the back benches. He is also demanding the foreign minister job for himself even though this has been promised by Mr Netanyahu to his party’s number two, Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently unable to take up the post because he is involved in a court case.

Mr Lapid has been offered the finance ministry instead. However, the newcomer to the Knesset does not want to serve in the position that requires great political experience and which is likely to become the target of considerable anger as the new government reins in spending to shrink the growing deficit.

Mr Netanyahu has only one more week until he is forced to call for new elections or allow a rival to try and form a coalition. It is highly unlikely that either of these eventualities will become reality, and the next few days promise some frantic horse-trading.

Last updated: 11:45am, March 7 2013