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Israel prime minister forges deal for new coalition government

A deal with the centrist Yesh Atid and the nationalist Jewish Home gives Benjamin Netanyahu a third term as leader. Ultra-Orthodox parties see a betrayal.

March 14, 2013|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to persuade the centrist party Yesh Atid and the nationalist Jewish Home to join his government with a combination of political promises and coveted ministry appointments.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to persuade the centrist… (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto…)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached deals Thursday with two political rivals that will enable him to forge a broad-based, but potentially unstable, coalition government.

After weeks of hard-fought negotiations with the centrist party Yesh Atid and the nationalist Jewish Home, Netanyahu managed to persuade both to join his government with a combination of political promises and coveted ministry appointments.

The agreements were still awaiting final signatures Thursday night, reportedly delayed by discussion of government titles for some players. The deals give Netanyahu a 68-vote majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament.

That means Netanyahu will secure a third term as Israel's leader but will be left with a more unruly coalition whose members often hold diametrical views on matters such as settlements and Palestinian peace talks.

The new coalition also forced Netanyahu to terminate, at least for now, his longtime alliance with Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties. They were left out of the government because the other coalition partners want to pass legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox young people into the army for the first time and cut government stipends that many religious families receive.

Angry leaders of the religious party Shas, which will join the left-leaning Labor Party in the opposition, said they would not forget what they view as a betrayal by Netanyahu.

"The boycott of the haredim is a stain that will never be erased," Shas leader Eli Yishai said, referring to ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yishai served as Netanyahu's interior minister in the most recent government.

The new alliance marks a setback for Netanyahu, who last year decided to bring down his coalition, one of the most stable in decades, in hope of increasing his political strength at the polls.

Instead Israelis, increasingly frustrated by the rising cost of living and perceptions that ultra-Orthodox citizens are not pulling their weight, shifted slightly to the center and left. In Israel's Jan. 22 national elections, Netanyahu's Likud Party saw its number of seats in the parliament shrink as those of his rivals on the right and left grew. Those results forced Netanyahu to bend to the will of two political newcomers: Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home.

Their surprise postelection alliance, despite ideological differences on some issues, prevented Netanyahu from playing them against one another.

The deadline for forming the new government would have been Saturday, after which another party leader would have been asked to try or a new elections would have been called.

Netanyahu had originally hoped to swear in a new government this week, well before the expected visit Wednesday by President Obama. Now the government is likely to be sworn in early next week.

According to the coalition agreements, the new government may take more progressive positions than the previous one, pushing to expand the military draft, standardizing school curriculum, reforming the electoral process and striving to restart Palestinian peace talks.

Another of Lapid's key demands was reducing the size of the Cabinet, which is expected to have 21 ministers, down from 30 in the last government.

But coalition agreements are not always implemented, and it remains to be seen how many of those policies are carried out or become law. Once the government is formed, Netanyahu may regain the upper hand in setting the agenda, analysts say, daring coalition partners to quit if they disagree.

"As long as it deals with domestic issues, it will remain stable," said Hebrew University political scientist Gideon Rahat. "On the other hand, gaps between coalition members on foreign policy are very wide."

The coalition will include Netanyahu's Likud with 20 seats and its nationalist election partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, with 11 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is slated to return as foreign minister if he is cleared in a pending corruption case. Likud's Moshe Yaalon is expected to be named defense minister.

Lapid brings his party's 19 seats and will serve as finance minister. Other partners include Jewish Home with 12 seats and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Movement party, with six seats.

Labor, with 15 seats, will lead the opposition, including the far-left Meretz, the religious parties and the Arab parties.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.

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