Religious parties left out of new Israeli government as Netanyahu forced to compromise

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2013 

— For the first time in years, Israel’s new government will not include representatives from the country’s ultra-Orthodox religious parties, a condition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to on Thursday in order to form a coalition that will allow him to be sworn in for a third term.

Under the agreement, Netanyahu bowed to the demands of his two main coalition partners, Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, that he cut the number of Cabinet ministers in half, leaving just 20 posts to fill. The likely result is expected to be curbs on what many Israelis believe is preferential treatment for the ultra religious, who make up 10 percent of the population but rarely serve in the army or the work force,

The new government will be sworn in Monday, just two days before President Barack Obama is slated to arrive in Jerusalem for his first visit as president.

“It almost didn’t happen,” said Shalom Yerushalmi, a political analyst for the Maariv newspaper. He said that despite “pulling every trick,” Netanyahu was forced to make concessions to Lapid and Bennett, both political newcomers. “They were able to force Netanyahu to his knees,” he said.

Despite vastly differing political philosophies, Lapid and Bennett forged a common front based on a mutual desire to change the “old guard” of Israel’s political elite. Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s political aide years ago, famously left the prime minister’s office after a heated dispute. Lapid, a well-known television personality, was fond on his show of criticizing Netanyahu’s policies as “antiquated” and out of touch with the common man.

“The next term will be one of the most challenging in the history of the state,” Netanyahu told his Likud- Beitenu political party Thursday. “We are facing great security and diplomatic challenges.”

In addition to Lapid and Bennett, an old Netanyahu rival, Tzipi Livni, will join the government as minister of justice and “minister in charge of the peace process.” Israeli officials, however, said that peace talks were not likely a high priority of the next government.

“There is a consensus that this isn’t very high up on the agenda,” said one lawmaker in Netanyahu’s party, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to upstage the prime minister. “Even when Obama comes next week, everyone knows that they are just going to pay lip service to the peace process and talk about more important things, like Iran.”

U.S. officials have said that Obama is not coming to Israel with a peace plan, or any expectation of a breakthrough in the long-mired Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli officials said that internal disagreements in Netanyahu’s coalition, as well as deep differences within Palestinian ranks, would keep peace talks in a “deep freeze.”

“This government would fall apart if they tried to engage in peace talks, and there would be no point in it anyway,” said the Likud lawmaker.

Although Netanyahu’s party earned the most seats in the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections – 31 – he struggled against the Lapid-Bennett union, who between them also won 31 seats. In the end, Netanyahu was forced to concede key ministries to the two; Lapid is expected to become finance minister and Bennett, minister of trade and industry.

Netanyahu tried to put the best face on the result, noting to his party followers that they had held onto several key positions, including the foreign and defense portfolios.

“These are the most important portfolios for the administration of the state,” said Netanyahu. “We worked together to achieve a clear majority in the Cabinet (for Likud-Beitenu) so that we can ensure the policy in which we believe.”

Netanyahu will serve as acting foreign minister until a court case is resolved against former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who’s accused of fraud and breach of trust while in office. Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon will serve as defense minister, after a long career in Israel’s security establishment.

Video: Benjamin Netanyahu's Coalition Government Nears Approval

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email:; Twitter: @sheeraf

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