Netanyahu is almost there. As Israeli politicians took a pause in their discussions for the Shabbat break, all sides expressed optimism that a new coalition could be announced within days.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party is close to finalizing a deal with its two major coalition partners: Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi. According to press reports, in meetings that took place on Friday, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid agreed to give up his previous demand to become foreign minister and instead will take the treasury portfolio. This will leave the foreign ministry open, a position Netanyahu wishes to keep for Avigdor Lieberman, if and when he is cleared on the corruption-related trial. As part of the emerging deal, Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party will get the commerce portfolio with some added-on areas of responsibility.
This coalition deal will provide Netanyahu with a stable government that, for the first time in over a decade, will not include members of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Such a coalition will allow Lapid to move forward with his plan to increase the military draft for Haredi men, many of whom are currently exempt of military service.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, however, the emerging coalition does not carry much promise for change. According to some reports, Netanyahu will agree to drop any mention of support for a two-state solution from the new government’s guidelines in order to ease Bennet’s way into his government. He may also re-negotiate the coalition agreement reached with Tzipi Livni to limit her responsibilities relating to the peace process.
Lapid, in his way into Netanyahu’s coalition, is also willing to make some concessions. His demand to limit the number of cabinet ministers to 18 was only partially accepted and the next government will have 24 ministers, instead of 28 who currently serve in cabinet-level positions. Lapid, according to the Israeli media, will also have to forgo his early demand to include in the government’s platform support for gay marriage and for allowing public transportation on Saturday.
Coalition talks are scheduled to resume on Saturday night with a possible agreement signed toward the middle of the Week. Netanyahu has until the end of next week to form a new government.
The new government is expected to be sworn in by the end of next week, only days before President Obama’s arrival in Jerusalem. However, the issues topping Obama’s agenda in Israel will not be influenced by the makeup of the new government.
On most topics relating to the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Israel the new government promises little change. Obama will find that efforts to promote the peace process will be just as difficult with the new government, especially since Netanyahu now seems poised to take away some of Livni’s responsibilities on this issue.
On the Iranian issue, Obama and his new defense secretary Chuck Hagel will have to get used to working with an Israeli counterpart known to be more on the hawkish side. Netanyahu intends to nominate Moshe Yaalon to replace Ehud Barak, who announced he would not seek another term as defense minister. While Barak served as Netanyahu’s unofficial liaison to the White House and was considered to be a moderating force on issues relating to Israel’s stance on Iran, Yaalon, a former military chief of staff, is a hardliner closer to the right-wing.
Obama’s schedule includes meetings with Israel’s president Shimon Peres and with Prime Minster Netanyahu, which by then will be the head of a brand new coalition government.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.