Bibi at the wheel, but prepare for a surprise left turn


On Monday morning, Moshe Kahlon arrived at the president's office in Jerusalem and recommended Benjamin Netanyahu as the head of a new government.

With the support of Mr Kahlon's Kulanu party, which brings 10 newly elected Knesset members, Mr Netanyahu crossed the threshold of a 61-MK majority and President Reuven Rivlin was no longer left with any choice but to hand him the mandate.

Both men, former Likudniks, are no fans of the Prime Minister and would almost certainly have been happier if it was Labour leader Isaac Herzog on his way to the prime minister's office.

Likud has insisted that it will form a government with its "natural partners" - Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu - whose support gives Mr Netanyahu a potential 67-MK coalition. However, he may yet decide to bring Zionist Union into a coalition in order to present a "moderate" face to the rest of the world and calm the diplomatic crisis that intensified during the election.

The four-week period in which Mr Netanyahu must form a coalition began on Wednesday evening. If that is not sufficient, the president can give him an extra two weeks. In his victory speech last week, Mr Netanyahu said he planned to form a government quickly, but the obstacles facing him could mean that he will need the entire six weeks available to complete the task.

A national unity coalition would allow him to present a moderate face to the world

The Likud is eager to keep at least two of the three main ministries under the party umbrella.

On Tuesday, in his first meeting with Mr Kahlon in a year and a half, Mr Netanyahu confirmed that he would be keeping his election promise to appoint him finance minister if Kulanu joined his government.

That leaves the Defence and Foreign ministries. Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman are both demanding one of these portfolios but since they have both been returned as leaders of much smaller parties than they led in the previous Knesset, their bargaining positions are much weaker, and Mr Netanyahu is planning to turn them down.

Other obstacles are Kulanu's demand to chair the Knesset Finance Committee, so that Mr Kahlon can implement his planned reforms.

United Torah Judaism is also demanding this position, in order to ensure funding is restored to Charedi education.

Shas, meanwhile, is likely to demand the Interior Ministry for its leader Arye Deri. The Prime Minister would be happy to appoint Mr Deri to the position but the move would almost certainly be challenged by petitions to the Supreme Court over the suitability of appointing to cabinet a former minister who was convicted and sent to prison for bribe-taking.

Besides the jigsaw puzzle of staffing his cabinet, Mr Netanyahu will also have to draft coalition guidelines that include planned legislation.

The two Charedi parties expect an amendment to the national service law that will remove the criminal charges clause affecting yeshivah students who refuse to enlist.

Habayit Hayehudi and some Likud members are demanding the new government resume legislation of the controversial Jewish Nation State and NGOs laws. Habayit Hayehudi will also try and insert into the guidelines something about Israel not agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but in interviews with the American media Mr Netanyahu has already tried to reverse his election promise on this issue.

The Obama administration has been using Mr Netanyahu's remark that a Palestinian state will not be established in his term to drive a wedge between the international community and the Israeli government.

The intensifying diplomatic crisis on his doorstep, even before his new government is sworn in, is a central reason why Mr Netanyahu may opt not to bring his natural partners into a coalition.

While the Labour party's Zionist Union has announced it would serve in opposition, many are predicting that its leader, Isaac Herzog, will soon be getting a phone call from the prime minister's office.

A national unity coalition with Labour would not only allow Mr Netanyahu to project a more moderate face to the world, with Foreign Minister Herzog as his top diplomat. It would also allow him to achieve a personal objective - leaving his right-wing rivals, Mr Lieberman and Mr Bennett, to wither away on the opposition backbenches.

Significantly, Mr Herzog was careful not to rule out such an option in his interviews following the election.

For the next couple of weeks, Likud's negotiating team will continue working on a right-wing government but they may just be going through the motions before the Prime Minister turns around and forms a coalition more suitable to his diplomatic and political requirements.

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