Israeli coalition talks stuck


As the first deadline for forming a new government looms next week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems nowhere near building a coalition.

Of the five parties currently expected to join Likud in government, only one, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), is on the brink of signing an agreement.

Likud has agreed that the strictly-Orthodox party can take control of the Health Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee. UTJ has also extracted a commitment on removing the criminal charges clause from the National Service law.

Until last week, the second strictly Orthodox party, Shas, also seemed close to signing a deal, but new obstacles have loomed. Leader Arye Deri wants to head up the Interior Ministry, which he controlled until forced to resign in 1998 due to an indictment for bribe-taking. But Mr Deri's appointment as interior minister would certainly be challenged in the High Court. It would also clash with the demand by Kulanu leader and potential finance minister Moshe Kahlon to have the Planning Authority - currently part of the Interior Ministry - moved to one of the ministries his party is expected to receive. The prime minister has offered Mr Deri the Transport or Economics ministries instead; so far without success.

The deadlock with Shas, along with other demands by Mr Kahlon - he has requested extra powers to enable him to carry out wide-ranging housing and banking reforms - are holding up the deal with Kulanu as well.

Meanwhile, talks with the Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu are stuck. Mr Netanyahu refused their leaders' demands for senior ministerial positions. This has fuelled speculation that Mr Netanyahu plans to form a unity government with Labour.

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