At the culmination of a long, complex and nerve wracking negotiation — lasting a whopping 39 days — it appears that the coalition agreements that will finalize the next government are closer at hand than ever.
"We did our best with 31 Knesset seats; we are still the ruling party" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday during a Likud-Beytenu faction meeting, just ahead of finalizing the last coalition agreements that will see a new government established.
"The important thing is that we took back the defense portfolio and kept the foreign portfolio," Netanyahu told his fellow faction members.
"I worked hard to achieve a majority in the coalition, in order to protect our policies," he added.
Netanyahu is expected to meet with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett on Thursday to sign the deal, Haaretz reported. According to reports in the Israeli media, the new government may be sworn in as early as Monday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided on Wednesday to agree, though some say succumb, to the key demand made by Lapid — that Netanyahu's Likud party relinquish the education portfolio in favor of Lapid's No. 2, Shai Piron.
For his part, Lapid agreed to relinquish the Interior Ministry portfolio that had been promised to his party. He also agreed to compromise further on the number of cabinet ministers — he initially demanded that the cabinet be limited to 18 ministers, then reached a deal over 20 ministers, and now, in exchange for the education portfolio, he has agreed to be flexible, allowing Hatnuah to keep the two ministerial portfolios agreed upon in their coalition deal with Netanyahu (under the 20-minister deal, the party would have had to give up one portfolio).
Under the new deal, four Likud members will be assigned deputy minister positions.
The distribution of portfolios has not been completed yet, but all the signs point to Likud getting the defense portfolio, which will most likely be assigned to Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, a former chief of general staff. Outgoing Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar will likely be appointed interior minister, though Gilad Erdan is also a likely candidate for the post. Yisrael Katz will most likely retain the transportation portfolio and Limor Livnat will remain Culture and Sport minister. Livnat may also be assigned the Communications Ministry in addition to her existing position. If not, Erdan may be appointed communications minister and possibly homefront defense minister as well.
Outgoing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz will likely be appointed intelligence and strategic affairs minister, a combined portfolio which in the last government was held by Dan Meridor and Ya'alon respectively. Silvan Shalom will likely remain in his current post of Negev and Galilee development minister, to which the energy portfolio will be added.
Netanyahu's preferred candidate for the position of Knesset speaker appears to be outgoing Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein.
It is not yet clear whether the position of deputy defense minister will be held by a Likud member or a member of Yesh Atid. The Likud's candidate is Zeev Elkin while Yesh Atid's is Ofer Shelah.
Likud's Ofir Akunis will most likely be appointed deputy minister in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Danny Danon and Gila Gamliel will both likely be appointed deputy ministers, with one serving as deputy education minister. The chairman of the coalition will probably be Tzachi Hanegbi.
In addition, Yariv Levin will likely be appointed chairman of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee and David Rotem will probably be appointed chairman of the Knesset House Committee.
The foreign affairs portfolio is going to be reserved for Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who held the position until he resigned due to a criminal indictment, until the conclusion of his trial. Yitzhak Aharonovitch will remain public security minister, Yair Shamir will likely become agriculture minister, Sofa Landver will remain immigrant absorption minister and the tourism portfolio will likely go to Uzi Landau (though Lieberman may decide to give the tourism portfolio to Faina Kirshenbaum, instead).
Yesh Atid will get the finance portfolio, which Lapid will man. As mentioned, Piron will be assigned the education portfolio. The welfare portfolio will go to Yael German and the health portfolio will go to Meir Cohen. Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet security chief, will serve as science minister.
Habayit Hayehudi will receive what is now called the industry trade and labor portfolio, which will be converted into the economy and commerce portfolio. This position will be manned by party chairman Bennett. Uri Ariel will be named housing minister and Uri Orbach will be the minister in charge of pensioner's affairs. Eli Ben-Dahan will be appointed deputy religious services minister and have authority over conversion, the Chief Rabbinate and the yeshivot (religious schools). Nissan Slomiansky, Ayelet Shaked and Avi Vartzman will vie for the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, or might head it in rotation.
Hatnuah, chaired by Tzipi Livni, will keep the positions agreed upon in their original coalition deal — Livni will serve as justice minister and party No. 3 Amir Peretz will be appointed environmental protection minister.
An associate of Netanyahu said Wednesday that "despite making the concession and giving up the education portfolio, the foreign and defense portfolios remain in [Likud] hands, as well as the interior ministry. This is not the coalition that Netanyahu initially wanted, but despite the concessions along the way, the important achievement is that Likud maintained a numerical majority in the coalition, which is essential for the coalition's stability."
Moshe Lion, an accountant and a legal scholar who had been vested with drafting the coalition agreements and who has represented Yisrael Beytenu in the coalition talks, told Israel Radio on Thursday that the new government will not have deputy prime ministers or vice premiers. Presumably, a senior minister would fill-in for Netanyahu on an ad-hoc basis in the event the prime minister travels overseas, as is customary. The outgoing government has three deputy prime ministers and two vice premiers.
"Well, this is the end; or actually, it may be the beginning," Lapid wrote on Facebook on Thursday, apologizing for his "long silence" over the past several days. "After we sign the final agreement (probably today) I will provide updates and explain, but it is important for me to tell the Yesh Atid Facebook community that I am still here and I will stay here because our dialog is part of the new politics, in which elected officials don't just shut the door and disappear the moment they are appointed to a new position. Thank you for all your support, and thank you for caring."
According to Haaretz, the coalition's basic guidelines (the main items in the coalition agreements) are likely to include a provision to send to the Knesset plenum a new military draft law even before the 2013 budget is submitted for a vote. Yesh Atid also claimed, according to Haaretz, that the coalition agreements will stipulate an immediate resumption of the peace process with the Palestinians and a mandatory core-studies curriculum that would take effect in all Israeli schools in two and a half years (this would largely affect the haredi school system, in which subjects such as math, science and English are often omitted from the curriculum). Haaretz also reported that the parties agreed to introduce financial incentives to encourage haredim to join the workforce.