Although President Shimon Peres is expected to ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government only after Wednesday, preliminary negotiations are already underway behind the scenes and are gradually intensifying. Likud officials are bracing for what could turn out to be a lengthy and complex ordeal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to decide on the parties he wants in his coalition, but he has already settled on several guiding principles for the upcoming talks. According to people in Netanyahu's inner circle, immediately after Peres instructs him to form a government he will try to finalize an agreement with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid based on legislation to increase the number of haredim who perform mandatory national service in the IDF or other civilian organizations. The two would agree on the details of such an agreement through a joint framework that has yet to be drafted.
After Lapid signs a coalition agreement, Netanyahu will turn to the ultra-Orthodox parties. It is too early to tell whether Shas and United Torah Judaism would be willing to enter a government that plans to focus on new national service legislation. The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu would go out of his way in his efforts to allow both the haredim and Lapid to sit at the same cabinet table.
Sources within the ruling party believe that despite Netanyahu's troubled relationship with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, the latter has a "good" chance of being in the government. Top officials who are close to the prime minister dismissed Habayit Hayehudi's subliminal accusations that the prime minister was "ignoring" Bennett because of old grudges. One top official said that "Habayit Hayehudi will enter the government in every scenario, but other parties such as the haredim's and Lapid's require an open channel of communications at a preliminary stage."
Lapid and Bennett are not expected to have any difficulty sitting side by side because Bennett favors new legislation on national service and has said he does not oppose a resumption of the peace process, although he strongly believes it would be unrealistic to expect a peace agreement to be signed in coming years. In any event, top Likud officials say that Netanyahu will make sure the next coalition will not be dependent on any single party. Namely, the coalition's size would make it impossible for a certain faction to deny it a 61-member majority in the Knesset by opting out.
The final election results show that the right-haredim bloc comprises 61 Knesset members. This overall strength, Netanyahu believes, could serve as a safety net for government stability, even if not all of the bloc's parties ultimately join.
Netanyahu also wants Kadima to join his coalition, despite the fact that it won only two Knesset seats by getting just over the necessary threshold for Knesset representation (two percent of the vote). Top officials in the Likud said that the prime minister had not ruled out the possibility of Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz returning to his native Likud, although for now, they stressed, the former IDF chief of general staff will not be appointed as defense minister (a post he once held).
The chances of having Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party in the coalition are not high, Likud officials said, although they refused to rule this out. They said talks with Livni are expected to commence in coming days.
Lapid and Netanyahu met on Thursday and they are expected to resume negotiations this week. Lapid plans to tell Peres that Netanyahu should lead the next government (under Israeli law the president must select the MK who has the best chance at forming a government after consulting with each party).
On Friday, Lapid shared some of his thoughts on the upcoming deliberations through his Facebook account: "Currently, what is happening does not constitute coalition talks, not even the beginning of coalition talks, but it is tough to explain to a political world that a whole month of waiting is in order. The big media circus is divorced from reality. There is no talk about who gets what portfolio and no one knows what the next government is going to look like," Lapid wrote on his profile. "Our principles from last week and our principles today are the same; how do we go about implementing them? Slowly, with patience, with resolve; we should avoid overwhelming ourselves and we should ignore background noise."
Ultra-Orthodox parties have not felt so helpless in coalition talks in years. The ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas is very keen on entering the coalition. Both Shas and the Ashkenazi haredi party, United Torah Judaism, are now waiting to see what Lapid's next moves are in order to evaluate whether his terms for an agreement would make it impossible form them to join the government.
Over the past several days Netanyahu communicated to Shas his desire to have his so-called natural partners join his coalition but the haredim know talks are likely to center on Lapid. Shas officials have told Lapid's team that they were convinced a compromise could be struck on the military draft. One prominent Shas figure told Israel Hayom that there are "many possibilities, such as the Ya'alon framework, an upgraded Tal Law or even the Lapid plan, with some adjustments," referring to various proposals that were floated over the past several years and the current law that grants de-facto exemption to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. "We have to sit down and talk," he said. But, he warned, Lapid could force Shas to stay out.
On Friday, MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) confirmed an Israel Hayom report from mid-January that he would try to forge a haredi-bloc in the Knesset that would represent the haredim in the coalition talks. "It is important to understand that the people have spoken; just like many voted for Lapid, who got 19 seats, half a million people voted for our parties," Gafni said. "Shas and United Torah Judaism are together worth 18 seats. We do not rule out other parties but our principles are clear."
Meanwhile, Shas officials continued to analyze the election results and scrutinize the decision to let its one-time leader Aryeh Deri assume a position within the party's shared leadership ahead of the elections. A source close to the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said, "Deri was not brought back to win more seats, but to prevent a world war in the Sephardi community that would have erupted had he established a new party." The source conceded that Deri "made costly mistakes and he will have to pay for them."