Coalition Talks Begin, Lieberman Wants Lapid For Finance

YERUSHALAYIM -

Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman fired the first shot in the battle over ministerial appointments in the next government on Wednesday when he proposed that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid be named finance minister and that his right of return to the Foreign Ministry be safeguarded until after his legal troubles are cleared away.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would prefer to make Lapid his foreign minister, taking advantage of the latter’s perfect British-accented English and his moderate image, which could help improve Israel’s relations with the U.S. and Europe,  according to The Jerusalem Post.

But Lieberman has a different idea. “I think that Lapid, who speaks about the middle class and the socioeconomic protests, should naturally focus on domestic issues and take the finance portfolio,” Liberman said in a press conference at Yisrael Beiteinu’s headquarters.

Lapid, a journalist-turned-politician, has never held a governmental post.

Netanyahu and Lapid met on Thursday for about two hours, after which they issued a bland communiqué saying the atmosphere was positive. The two discussed “the challenges facing the country and ways to deal with them. They agreed to meet again soon,” according to the statement.

Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), a former IDF chief of general staff, continues to be regarded as the front runner for the defense portfolio.

Although Lapid has responded positively to Netanyahu’s invitation to join his coalition, the question of which parties will join them in forming a governing majority was still very much open.

Netanyahu hopes to form a coalition of at least 80 MKs so that no single party would be able to topple it, thereby ensuring its stability, The Jerusalem Post reported late Thursday night.

Lapid reportedly wants Tzipi Livni’s Movement party to join them, but Netanyahu prefers Shas and United Torah Judaism instead.

However, Lapid’s demands on issues such as drafting yeshivah students and insisting on a core secular curriculum in all state-supported institutions pose severe obstacles to the chareidi parties sitting in one government with his party.

Also on Thursday, Netanyahu phoned Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party but did not schedule a meeting, Ynet said.

A Likud source told The Jerusalem Post last week that Netanyahu would only invite him after a majority had been organized so as to minimize the influence of the right-wing party.

Eager to join the coalition, Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel said he had no problem joining a government in which Livni negotiated with the Palestinians, and Bennett said he was amenable to reconsidering the religious status quo. That would make him a more attractive coalition partner to Lapid, despite their differences on the peace process with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Eli Yishai expressed optimism that Shas will be in the next government. He argued that a Likud-Beiteinu-Yesh Atid-Jewish Home coalition would make a thin, weak majority of 62 seats with little hope of finishing out the full four-year term.

“Let’s be done with the campaigning and spin, and form a stable government,” Yishai said. “For sure it will be complicated, but we need to all sit down together, without exception, and discuss what’s good for the Jewish people and for the state of Israel.”

On Tuesday night, Yishai said that if Lapid “wants to be realistic, he needs to work together with us; otherwise, there will be no stability.”

The major question hanging over all, however, is that of drafting chareidim — or, to use the current code phrase, “sharing the burden.” The chareidi parties are unequivocally opposed to any interference in the right of avreichim and bachurim to continue their Torah studies, while Yesh Atid has repeatedly committed itself to just that.

The prime minister’s preliminary talks with the parties are designed to preempt their meetings with President Shimon Peres next week, at which they are slated to recommend a coalition leader. Netanyahu wants to have a coalition already in hand before that.

He will then send his lawyers to meet with party representatives and draw up coalition agreements, in the hope of completing the formation of his new government before he leaves for Washington in early March, The Jerusalem Post said.

While coalition talks proceeded with some publicity, senior Likud members were privately grumbling about the election outcome. They blame Netanyahu for Likud’s poor showing, winning only 20 seats (Yisrael Beiteinu got the other 11), down from 27 in the 2009 election.

“Bibi [Netanyahu] had all the tools to win the race,” a minister said in closed conversations reported by the Post.

“He could have set the agenda every day, but he did another spin campaign every day and it kept on falling. The Likud is a political burden for him. We can’t escape the conclusion that he wanted a smaller Likud, and that’s why he lost.”

Minor Likud activists, not up for any high offices and with less to lose, spoke more openly, complaining that the party made no effort to use them to help it win more seats. They claimed Netanyahu thought he could replace the party’s infrastructure of activists with a media campaign but was proven incorrect.

“Netanyahu paralyzed the party,” said Ashkelon Likud activist Eli Cornfeld, who was once close to Netanyahu.

“The party’s director-general, institutions and branches are not functioning. There is no transparency. No one knows where the money is going. Bibi has treated party activists as his indentured servants, so it should have been no surprise to him that we fared so poorly,” Cornfeld said.

As an example, Cornfeld cited a polling station in Ashkelon in which only one car was made available to bring elderly people to vote. Many of the 10,000 people registered to vote at the station stayed home because no one could give them a ride, he said.

Next week, after President Shimon Peres receives the official election results from the Central Elections Committee, he will begin a round of talks with party leaders to determine who he will charge with forming the next government. Netanyahu is the expected choice.