Israeli PM scrambling to build coalition

2013-02-12 22:10:39 GMT2013-02-13 06:10:39(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

JERUSALEM, Feb. 12 (Xinhua) -- Three weeks following the Jan. 22 elections, incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still scrambling to form a new government.

Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beytenu party won 31 out of 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament), was appointed on Feb. 2 by President Shimon Peres to form a government after 82 members of Knesset recommended him for the task.

Netanyahu has 28 days to form a coalition and is eligible to receive an extension of 14 days.

However, despite his wishes to build a wide government including ultra-Orthodox, right-wing and center-wing parties, he and his negotiation team have a lot of tiptoeing to do between the potential allies.

On Monday, Netanyahu met with Naftali Bennet, head of Habayit Hayeudi (Jewish Home) right wing party, the fourth largest in the parliament with 12 seats. The meeting was the first time after five years of a rift between the two sides.

Bennet used to head Netanyahu's headquarters when the latter was the chairman of the opposition in 2006. The two quarreled and the tensions were evident in the latest elections campaign.

In a press release sent to Xinhua, both parties described the meeting's atmosphere as "businesslike" and said the two would meet again soon.

However, sources told the Ha'aretz daily that the meeting was tense.

One of the problems the negotiation teams are facing is that both Bennet and Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, the second largest party with 19 seats, seem to have coordinated their stances, specifically about the need to conscript young ultra- Orthodox men into the army.

Prof. Eugene Kandal, head of the National Economic Council, presented a plan to gradually raise the draft targets for ultra- Orthodox and create incentives for their conscription. However, it seems that Yesh Atid is likely to reject the outline.

"The main problem is that Yesh Atid doesn't want to sit in the coalition with the Haredi parties," a senior member of the Likud party told the Ha'aretz daily Monday.

"If Yesh Atid will decide to join a government with the Haredim, it is possible to find an outline that will satisfy all parties," he added.

As for the ultra-Orthodox parties, who Netanyahu desperately wants in his government, they reject any conscription plan.

Netanyahu wants ultra-Orthodox parties in his government because of the support they would provide for different moves, like restarting the peace negotiations, in return for receiving the portfolios they seek.

On Tuesday, Eli Yishai from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party met with Knesset member Uri Ariel from Habayit Hayeudi, after one of Shas members on Monday accused the party of "starting a war on Judaism."

On Monday, during Shas faction meeting in the Knesset, Yishai said Lapid was working to ensure that the government would lack Haredi parties.

In response, Lapid said during his first speech at the Knesset plenum Monday that the ultra-Orthodox will have to learn that " there are rules and laws that apply to everyone," referring to the obligatory conscription of young secular men into the army.

Specifically commenting on statements by ultra-Orthodox about an "upcoming civil war", Lapid stated that "we cannot be afraid of the fact that the discussion of equality in the burden once again brought voices threatening of civil war. There won't be a civil war. Ten percent of the population cannot claim war upon 90 percent of it," he said.

Another problematic issue in the current negotiations, according to local news outlets, is that Lapid expressed his desire to become the foreign minister. However, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted he would like to reclaim after his legal battles are over.

Lieberman was indicted in December on charges of fraud and breach of trust. His political future is yet unclear and depends on the results of his trial, which will be opened on Feb. 17.

Lapid commented the ongoing reports about the negotiations during his first speech in the 19th Knesset plenum on Monday. " About 99.9 percent of what you read in the papers about the negotiations isn't actually happening," he said.

"There are as yet no discussions on portfolios. No one spoke to our negotiations team about it. Whatever you read is mere speculation that is not connected to us," he added.

As far as other potential members are concerned, it appears that Tzipi Livni, head of the center-left party, the Movement, will join the government and receive a major role in the planned renewal of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

On Monday, Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich denied claims that she will be willing to consider joining the government if it were to receive the treasury portfolio.

"There is no truth to the rumors that I'm given the finance portfolio we'll set in the government," she wrote on her Facebook page.

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