President Shimon Peres granted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a two-week extension on Saturday after the latter failed to assemble a coalition in the initially allotted four-week time frame. Netanyahu blamed political "boycotts" for his failure to complete the task.
By law, the president cannot allow the prime minister any additional time, beyond these two weeks, to assemble the coalition. If the coalition is not complete within the next two weeks, new elections will likely be called.
During the meeting between Peres and Netanyahu at the president's office in Jerusalem on Saturday, the prime minister briefed the president on the latest developments in the ongoing coalition talks.
"The main reason I have been unable to complete putting a coalition together until now is because of boycotts," the prime minister told the president, referring to the alliance between Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett. Lapid's 19-seat party will not join the coalition unless the prime minister forgoes his traditional partnership with the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Bennett's 12-seat party will not join the coalition without Lapid, exerting enormous pressure on the prime minister to exclude the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
"A certain population within the State of Israel is being boycotted, and that goes against my principles," Netanyahu told the president. "I am doing everything in my power to unite the people [of Israel]. I think that as Jews we have suffered enough boycotts. We know that Israel is often boycotted in international forums, and in such cases we justifiably object."
In a direct appeal to Bennett's constituency, Netanyahu went on to say that "when Judea and Samaria settlement products are boycotted, we cry out, with good reason. If anyone should understand this it should be the settlers in Judea and Samaria, who are subject to boycotts on a daily basis. Throughout our history we have seen a lot of tragedy resulting from baseless hatred and civil strife."
Referring to the past four weeks in which efforts to assemble a coalition produced only one coalition deal — with Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah — the prime minister stressed that "we have made a lot of progress on diplomatic issues, economic issues and on equality in shouldering the burden. I think that we are very close to reaching understandings in all these areas. Furthermore, I can say that the haredi public is ready to accept these understandings."
In conclusion, Netanyahu said that "I want to take advantage of the coming days to try once again to assemble a wide coalition. I hope that the party leaders will act responsibly and display their leadership, and that means making an effort to unite rather than dividing the people."
In response, Peres told Netanyahu that he was "pleased to hear that you believe that you can complete the task of assembling a coalition within two weeks."
"The state, in its current condition, needs a strong, organized, stable elected government as quickly as possible so that it can face security threats and grave social problems and bring all its people together as much as possible. I want to wish you good luck in your task," Peres said.
Bennett issued a response to the prime minister's remarks on Saturday, saying that "in the days after the election, Likud officials refused to speak with Habayit Hayehudi. They boycotted us. The message was that we will not be in the coalition."
"We expected to be the first, most natural partner to enter Netanyahu's coalition. Despite the boycott against us, we recommended to the president that he assemble the coalition, without imposing conditions. Just like we promised during the election. But the message coming from Likud was simple: Religious Zionism will not be in the coalition under any circumstances," Bennett said.
"At that time, the prime minister met with Lapid twice, with Tzipi Livni, with [Shaul] Mofaz and even with Zehava Gal-On. Religious Zionism remained under boycott; out of the coalition. 'We are aiming for a Left-haredi coalition,' the Likud said to us. Their explanation: The diplomatic process won't move forward with Habayit Hayehudi in the coalition.
A Likud official said later that day that "Habayit Hayehudi was the first party to get an offer to join the Netanyahu-led coalition, as a direct extension of [Likud's] promise to bolster Netanyahu from the Right. We call on Habayit Hayehudi not to boycott an entire population in Israel so that a coalition with a nationalist majority can be assembled."