Following their preliminary conversation on election night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid met on Thursday to get down to brass tacks. The meeting lasted about two and a half hours, during which the two men outlined what each saw as the guiding principles of the next government. Foremost of these is equality in sharing the burden (i.e. drafting haredim into the IDF), which Lapid has made a precondition to his joining the coalition.
Although Netanyahu views Lapid as his most senior coalition partner, some believe that he will be unwilling to abandon his partners on the Right, including the haredi parties. On Thursday, as the double envelopes (votes by soldiers, prisoners, hospital patients, diplomats and others who couldn't reach regular polling stations) were counted, it emerged that the right-wing bloc had won 61 mandates. This gives Netanyahu a safety net should the negotiations with Lapid break down, or should Lapid decide to leave the coalition at a later date.
Senior Likud sources told Israel Hayom that Netanyahu's first task in coalition talks with Lapid is to reach an agreement over drafting haredim into the IDF that the haredi parties will be able to live with and thus remain in the government.
The haredi parties have hinted in the past that Lapid's outline for drafting haredim is acceptable to them in principle, but that they will request exemptions for a lot more than the 400 yeshiva students suggested by Lapid.
Associates of Lapid and Netanyahu say that the atmosphere between them was positive and that they would resume negotiations soon. The big question is which ministries Lapid will request. Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman would like to remain foreign minister if and when his legal issues are resolved, but Lapid is likely to have his eye on that ministry as well.
Senior Likud sources revealed on Thursday that the prime minister would be willing to appoint Lapid finance minister. "This would be a concession on Netanyahu's part," they said, "because we're talking about the most senior government position, but Netanyahu would be open to it should Lapid request it."
It is believed that Lapid will also request the Education portfolio for his party's no. 2, Rabbi Shai Piron.
On Thursday, Lapid announced that he had appointed a negotiating team on behalf of his party. It will be headed by the man who ran the party's campaign, Brig. Gen. (res.) Hillel Kobrinsky, along with Uri Shani and Danny Vasli. Netanyahu's coalition negotiating team is expected to include his close associate Nathan Eshel and personal lawyer David Shimron.
In a message to activists, Lapid hinted on Thursday that his next stop would be the Prime Minister's Office. "Today we are embarking on a long journey, at the end of which we will rise to the rank of number one. Instead of being the second largest political party in Israel, we need to be the largest." Lapid wrote.
Two days after the elections, Netanyahu on Thursday called Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett. Despite the tense relationship between the two, it is believed that Habayit Hayehudi will also be invited to engage in coalition talks.
On Thursday the prime minister also spoke with Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and suggested that they meet. Yachimovich responded that she has no intention of joining the government as the two parties' ideological platforms and economic worldviews are too far apart.
Netanyahu also spoke on Thursday with Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On, who made it clear that Meretz would not join a government headed by Netanyahu.
Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni also received a phone call from the prime minister on Thursday night, and the two agreed to meet. It is believed that the prime minister would like to bring Livni and Hatnuah into the coalition, but that it is not a high priority for him, and that he would first prefer to make a deal with Lapid, the haredi parties, Habayit Hayehudi and Kadima.
Meanwhile, Shas is gearing up for coalition talks as the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef announced on Thursday that the coalition negotiations would be conducted jointly by the party's leadership trio, Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias. "You cannot ignore that there is a personal aspect to the negotiations as well," said a senior source close to the rabbi. "Deri is close to Lieberman, Yishai is close to Netanyahu and Ariel has his own unique relationships and attributes."
Shas continues to regard Yair Lapid with a mixture of respect and fear, but they also have drawn clear boundaries as to how far they will go on the issue of sharing the burden.
"With all due respect to Lapid," Deri said Thursday in a radio interview, "he needs to remember that the one assembling the government is the prime minister. Obviously, it will be harder for us to reach an agreement with Lapid, but there are also channels of dialogue."
"Lapid is not someone who eats haredim for lunch," Deri demurred. "He is a good man, affable, not combative. He realizes that achieving equality of the burden can only be done through agreement."
At the same time, said Deri, Shas will not accept any agreement that would not allow a yeshiva student to study if he wishes to. "We have heard talk of a mere 400 yeshiva students. That is not acceptable."
Deri was also very critical of Bennett and his party. "Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett will not change a status quo that rabbis fought to preserve for over 70 years."