With nine days left to form a government, time is running out for the coalition talks — but the formation of a new coalition is far from a done deal. Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid has so far refused to accept the finance portfolio and insists on serving as foreign minister so that he can accrue diplomatic and security experience to catapult him into a future prime ministerial position.
Officials involved in the coalition talks say that the disagreement over Lapid's portfolio is what resulted in talks between Likud-Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid being called off on Wednesday and in both sides effectively cutting all official contact.
Likud-Beytenu has also offered Yesh Atid additional portfolios. Likud officials stressed Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not have another economic figure oversee Lapid's actions should he accept the job and that he would get to chair the Socio-Economic Cabinet and the special ministerial taskforce on affordable housing.
Likud-Beytenu officials said they had offered to cut the number of cabinet ministers from 30 to 26 and to pass a bill that would cap the number of cabinet members at 18 starting from the following government. During the recent election campaign, Lapid often said the size of the government had to be cut drastically to reduce wasteful spending and that his party members would not accept the role of ministers without portfolio.
"Lapid has been singularly focused on the foreign affairs portfolio and he decided to have it serve as a deal breaker, but the prime minister has made it clear that the portfolio is reserved for [Yisrael Beytenu head] Avigdor Lieberman," a senior Yesh Atid official said on Wednesday. Lieberman resigned as foreign minister in December pending an indictment against him but plans to return to the ministry if he is acquitted or receives a lenient sentence.
"The prime minister must treat Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Kadima as one party that comprises 33 seats," the official said. "Such a faction deserves two of the three major portfolios, foreign affairs and finance. Contrary to what Likud officials have been saying, the alliance between us and Habayit Hayehudi is stronger than ever. Yesh Atid also insists on having a government that comprises no more than 18 ministers."
Late Wednesday, Lapid commented on the state of the talks on Facebook.
"For the past two days, Likud has said negotiations were about portfolios," he wrote.
"I saw the reports that Naftali Bennett and I have presented the prime minister with an ultimatum on that matter. Of course that is not true and it is unbecoming. No one presents an ultimatum to the prime minister of Israel. [Accusing me of such a thing] is such a phony attempt to divert attention from the real issues at hand. Why is this phony? Because even the Likud has said that if all I ever wanted was to get a portfolio, I could have been a senior minister a month ago. I have not settled down in any office because we at Yesh Atid could not care less how many bodyguards we get and what car we are assigned.
"Our talks are not about seats but about substance. We want to be able to, once and for all, get an answer about how to distribute the national service burden in a equal manner. We want answers on why, when Israeli citizens are bracing for painful austerity measures, there is a need for a bloated government with 28 ministers that would waste hundreds of millions of shekels on appointments that are void on any meaning. We want to make sure that we can execute our plan to lower housing prices. We want to know that education would not be compromised and that we can embark on the Education Decade. I promised change. Government ministers must help the middle class, not vice versa. The era of spins and leaks is over. The people want clean politics that tackle the real issues. Because we have yet to get an answer on those issues, the talks over portfolios will have to wait."
However, an official from Habayit Hayehudi said, "The demand for two senior cabinet positions was not made with our blessing."
The alliance between Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett showed its first cracks on Wednesday, with the latter apparently intent on making progress in the coalition talks. Top officials at Habayit Hayehudi also oppose Lapid's insistence on introducing public transportation on weekends, reforming the conversion apparatus and allowing civil marriage.
In an appeal to the ultra-Orthodox public on Wednesday, Bennett released a video clip on YouTube in which he stressed that he was not anti-haredi.
"My brothers, the haredim, I take it upon myself to take care of the world of the Torah and to represent you, even if the haredi parties serve in the opposition," he said.
Meanwhile, a day after Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said he would look into Netanyahu's decision to reserve the foreign affairs portfolio for Lieberman, Weinstein's office released a statement that affirmed the legality of the move. According to the statement, Weinstein found no valid grounds to prevent Netanyahu from serving as the foreign minister until the conclusion of Lieberman's trial on charges of breach of trust and fraud.
Weinstein, who was addressing claims made by MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) and government watchdog organization Ometz, also rejected the notion that Lieberman's return to the ministry could adversely influence Foreign Ministry employees when they were called to testify against him. Weinstein said that in light of what the employees told the police, he did not believe the trial's proceedings would be compromised.