After weeks of angry public exchanges and protracted negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu finally formed Israel’s new government today hours before an extended deadline expired.
The broad details – especially over the dissemination of cabinet jobs – were agreed earlier in the week, but the finer points are still to be ironed out . Specifically, the final announcement was delayed after a row over whether Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett – the leaders of the two other main parties in the coalition - were to be given the title of deputy prime minister.
The fresh row threatened to boil over at one point when negotiators from Mr Bennett’s religious right wing Jewish Home party failed to turn up to final talks yesterday after Moshe Leon, from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu confirmed that the prime minister would have no deputies.
Jewish Home said Mr Netanyahu’s last minute decision not to appoint any deputy prime ministers, the first time it has happened for 50 years, was a violation of an agreement the party.
The move by Mr Netanyahu – just two days before the deadline for forming a government - may have been in response to the unbreakable bloc formed by Mr Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Jewish Home, who boxed the prime minister into a corner with certain demands, especially the exclusion from the new government of the ultra-orthodox parties. Mr Lapid, a former talk show host, insisted during the campaign that Israel’s orthodox communities needed to contribute more to society, and especially complete mandatory military service from which they are currently exempt.
The ultra-orthodox parties are natural allies of Mr Netanyahu. “We wanted a broader more stable coalition and we didn’t hide that at any stage of the negotiations, unfortunately our partners wanted differently,” Zeev Elkin of Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party told Israel radio. “Under the difficult near impossible conditions, we had no other option and more or less had to conduct coalition talks under extortion, there is no other expression to describe it, under these conditions I think we obtained the maximum.”
Arieh Deri – the leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, told Israel’s Army radio that, “our first mission is to topple this government.”
The government, when it is finally agreed, is likely to be shown in on Monday, just two days before US president Barack Obama arrives for a state visit. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party makes up the coalition.
Attention is likely to turn to the new administration’s position on the moribund peace process with the Palestinians. “The composition of the new government will shift the emphasis towards civic issues, and that means that talks with the Palestinians will get greater promotion,” said Professor Dan Avon, a senior lecturer in the department of political sciences at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “This government is less nationalistic than the outgoing administration – just look at the coalition partners – in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party there is a strong cohort of people who are pro-peace.”
Yesh Atid is the second strongest party in the government following the 22 January general election, holding 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
However, on the Palestinian side there was little enthusiasm for the new Israeli government. Referring to Uri Ariel, a senior member of Mr Bennett’s Jewish Home and the administration’s new housing minister, Xavier Abu Eid, a communications adviser in the PLO’s negotiations department, said that there was little reason for optimism.
“This is a government that has a settler for its housing minister, what’s the reason to be optimistic? Obviously, we cannot select a government for the Israelis, we can only ask them to respect previous agreements and international law.”