Coalition talks continue apace, with the main focus now on how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempts to square the circle between a centrist party whose main platform is integrating Israel's ultra-Orthodox sector into the army and workforce, and the haredi political parties who are fighting tooth and nail against any change in the status quo.
Amid the tension between Netanyahu and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, following the latter's statements concerning his wish to occupy the prime minister's seat in a year and a half should he be left out of the opposition, the two met again on Thursday, face to face. Netanyahu and Lapid will try to bridge the gaps between them and examine the possibility of Yesh Atid entering the coalition, together with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party — an ideal solution according to the prime minister's associates.
Netanyahu is expected to tell Lapid that he sees the haredi parties as partners in his government and that if Lapid wants to join the government, he will have to make his stance more flexible, particularly on the issue of "sharing the burden" (recruiting haredim into the Israel Defense Forces and into the workforce). According to a source close to the coalition talks, Netanyahu would like to form as broad-based a government as possible — one that includes Lapid, Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz from the Center-Left of the political spectrum, as well as the haredi parties and Habayit Hayehudi from the Right.
"To advance the issue of 'sharing the burden,' we need Lapid in the government. To make progress on peace, we need the support of the haredim," the source said. "Only a broad-based government that includes all of the streams in Israeli society will allow freedom of action on issues of substance."
Speaking on Army Radio on Thursday morning, Likud Yisrael Beytenu MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who is considered very close to Netanyahu, said "an equal sharing of the burden will happen, even with the haredim in the coalition, because the public wants it and because there is a court order to do it.
"Lapid and the haredim will have to compromise — there is going to be a dramatic and meaningful change in the sharing of the burden. It is going to be gradual but it will happen. The haredim have for years tried to distance this day, but the day has arrived, and it arrived also because the court has ordered a change. The peace process must be advanced because that is in the interest of the country," Hanegbi said.
In Likud-Beytenu, there is an assessment that aside from the haredi parties, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party is also on the cusp of entering the coalition. It is too early to say whether Yesh Atid, Kadima and Habayit Hayehudi will also enter the government. Although the latter's inclusion in the government is thought to be almost certain, officials in the party on Thursday said that this was not to be taken for granted.
Even though there is no intention of bringing Meretz into the coalition, Netanyahu will meet on Thursday with Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, who is expected to call on him to put together a government that will advance the peace process.
In the meantime, it seems that the political alliance that was forming in recent days between Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid is being shaken up, over the key issue of "sharing the burden." Habayit Hayehudi has decided, following pressure from party members and rabbis, that Lapid's plan for drafting haredim is not acceptable to them. In the coming days, the party will draft its own plan, after it studies the other plans that have been drafted, including that of Deputy Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, and the plan formulated by former Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner.
The attacks continue
At the same time, haredi parties continue to lash out at Habayit Hayehudi to get party leader Naftali Bennett to drop his alliance with Lapid, whom they brand as completely anti-haredi. The Shas newsletter Yom Leyom savagely attacked Bennett in Thursday's issue. "Bennett admits that he grew up in a secular household devoid of Torah. And if we judge by his current deeds, he is eager to abandon all his Jewish and Torah principles even though he was elected by hundreds of thousands of Torah-and-mitzvah-observant Jews," the newsletter said.
"It started with his declarations on the eve of elections that he would not listen to rabbis and that his party does not do the bidding of rabbis. Then there were MK Ayelet Shaked's statements that the conversion process in Israel is too onerous and that it must be made easier, as well as Bennett's numerous statements that the status quo must be re-examined, a demand that even Lapid would not dare speak out loud. And then there was the new covenant between Lapid and Bennett. Is this the behavior of someone who heads a religious Zionist party?"
Lapid for his part once again attacked the haredim on Wednesday. "The haredi parties are energetically spreading the rumor that I am conspiring to damage the Torah world. There is no greater nonsense," he wrote on his Facebook page. "All my life I have been reading and studying the Bible. I see Torah study as part of Israeli existence. Among Yesh Atid's Knesset members are two rabbis. The fact that there are people who devote most of their lives to Torah study is praiseworthy, and I even think we need to make Talmud a subject of study in secular schools."
"Except that Torah study," Lapid continued, "cannot turn into an excuse for 8-year-old children not to study math and English, for 18-year-olds not to serve their homeland, and for 28-year-olds not to work to support themselves. King David was a combat soldier. Maimonides studied secular subjects. Nachmanides and Rashi both worked for a living. Do the haredi parties also think that these men also 'damage the Torah world'?"
"Everyone has the right to learn [Torah], but learning can't become an excuse for failing to fulfill one's basic duties to the country, family and society in which one lives.
"And besides, there are 'seventy faces to the Torah,' so don't believe anyone who tells you he's the sole representative of the God of Israel," Lapid wrote.
Meanwhile, a historic meeting of both Councils of Torah Sages of the two mainstream haredi movements, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael, will take place Thursday in Bnei Brak.
According to haredi media outlet Vos Iz Neias, the joint meeting has been called as a matter of emergency, in light of the threat to the blanket exemption from military service enjoyed by full-time yeshiva students. "Both councils will, without a doubt, express an uncompromising position on the matter, and will refuse to agree to any proposal that enforces enlistment of those studying in yeshiva," the site said.
In related news, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein justified the conduct of Prime Minister's Office legal adviser Shlomit Barnea-Pargo, saying that she acted within her role when she advised Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, when he was forced to retire. Eshel asked Barnea-Pargo for an opinion as to whether he can join coalition negotiations following a request from Netanyahu and former foreign minister MK Avigdor Lieberman.