Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett remained entrenched in their positions on Wednesday, a day after Hatnuah became the first party to sign a coalition agreement.
Associates of Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he was determined to secure the support of 57 MKs — comprising the members of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, Hatnuah, Kadima and the ultra-Orthodox parties — before turning to others. They warned that if Habayit Hayehudi did not enter the coalition new elections might have to be called.
"Bennett's rhetoric reinforces the suspicion that he has decided to sever his ties with the national camp [the right-wing bloc]," a source close to Netanyahu said on Wednesday.
Over at Habayit Hayehudi, party members stressed on Wednesday that the party's alliance with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party was intact and Netanyahu would not be able to unravel it. Bennett, who spoke at a gathering of the National Religious Party Convention (part of the party apparatus that governs Habayit Hayehudi) raised the possibility that his party would be part of the opposition. This was his first such comment.
"We want to help Netanyahu and lend a hand; we understand the complexities in running the most complex country in the world," he said. "For years, the Likud and the national-religious camp had a natural partnership. During the last campaign we were brutally assaulted and as a result this bond has become somewhat looser. But it is not too late to mend fences. They wanted to have us assume, once again, the role of a non-commissioned army chaplain, but we are no longer in that position. We are going to have a leadership position, or else we will not participate."
Bennett also said, "The path the government embarks on will ultimately determine whether it would tackle the actual problems facing Israel. We can be the most the reliable and dedicated partner inside the coalition, but if we stay out, that would not be the end of the world. I call on the prime minister: seize the moment."
Bennett also attacked Netanyahu's partnership with Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni: "Are we going to let a person who has already declared she would divide Jerusalem and give up Ariel run the peace process? The makeup of this government will decide whether this government is a government of opportunity with renewed strengths or a government of missed opportunities. The ball is now in Netanyahu's court."
In response, Hatnuah issued a statement saying, "Livni has never made concessions on Ariel or discussed the division of Jerusalem during negotiations; rather, she defended Israel's national interests."
Bennett also elaborated on the need to find a more equal of way of sharing the national service burden. "One of the windows that is being closed is the window for reaching a real solution that would integrate the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society," he said. "Some call that 'an equal sharing of the burden,' but I would prefer to call it 'letting the haredim get out of the cage they are trapped in.' Historical circumstances have condemned them to a life of poverty through no fault of their own. This has not happened in other haredi communities around the world; it only happened in Israel."
Most of the speakers at the event expressed support for Bennett, although there were a few who voiced opposition to the motions Bennett submitted for a vote. Bennett succeeded in having all of his proposals approved by the party members, including a resolution that empowers him to select the party members who would serve as cabinet ministers (although the party's central committee would still have to approve each one). All his proposals received overwhelming support.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu met with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz on Wednesday to discuss the latter's participation in the coalition. Mofaz's associates said the two were still in disagreement over certain issues, particularly national service, because Kadima opposes the plan that was drafted by National Economic Council head Eugene Kandel as too lenient. Mofaz bolted the Netanyahu government last May over the issue of equalizing the national burden, and Kandel's plan does not meet Mofaz's criteria.
Netanyahu is also working overtime to entice the Labor party join his government despite party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich's refusal to do so. One of Shas' leaders, Aryeh Deri, met with Histadrut labor federation head Ofer Eini on Wednesday to exert some of his leverage on Yachimovich.
An unusual meeting also took place between Interior Minister Eli Yishai, another Shas leader, and Lapid, in what may be an attempt to bridge the gaps between the two parties over the military draft issue. After the media reported on the meeting Yishai commented on his Facebook page, "Unfortunately, despite the efforts to keep this meeting under wraps, it leaked."
"I believe that anyone who wants to effect change and to promote partnerships and political cooperation, particularly in this current point in time, must do so far away from the media," he wrote. "It was a good and professional meeting; his [Lapid's] views and approach to various issues diverge significantly from my views and the views of many others."
Earlier on Wednesday, Yishai said he believed Shas would sign a coalition agreement next week or the following week. "Progress is being made, but we are still far from finalizing everything; this includes the military draft issue and budgetary matters."
Shas officials stressed that there were still no talk about assigning specific ministerial portfolios. "We made it clear to the Likud that the first order of business was to finalize the coalition's basic guidelines and only then proceed to other issues."
Over at Kadima, tensions are running high in the wake of the coalition deal, with two main contenders eying the second ministerial portfolio. Associates of MK Amram Mitzna, who is second on the party's Knesset list, said on Wednesday that he was only made aware of the potential appointment of MK Amir Peretz (No. 3 on the list) as environmental protection minister by reading press reports. They said that when Livni brought Mitzna to the party and made him the No. 2, she also promised he would be the second-most senior minister. Livni associates, however, said no such promise was ever made.
The simmering tensions at the party's top echelons were clearly on display at Wednesday's caucus meeting, when Peretz approached Mitzna and wished him a happy birthday only to be snubbed by his colleague, who also refused to shake his hand.
Mitzna and Livni met after the meeting, during which Livni said she had yet to make a decision as to who would get the coveted portfolio. During the caucus meeting Livni commented on the agreement she signed with the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, saying "our conditions were met in full and we got even more than what we had asked for; the most central issue we discussed was the peace process, and we undoubtably got what we wanted on that front," she said. "The second thing we got, which is no less important, was the Justice Ministry, which will allow us to share our world view and our belief in a Jewish democracy, as well as to try to prevent radicalization."
Officials inside Habayit Hayehudi criticized Livni's appointment as justice minister. "The decision moves us even further from the coalition," one party member said. MK Yoni Chetboun (Habayit Hayehudi) said that he "was overwhelmed by calls from grass-roots activists urging the party to stay out of the left-wing government of Netanyahu and Livni."
In the wake of the Livni appointment, MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) has already drafted a bill mandating that any permanent peace accord with the Palestinians be subject to a nation-wide referendum. Akunis says Netanyahu has already endorsed the bill.