Benjamin Netanyahu has been forced to ask for more time to form Israel’s next government amid an increasingly hostile row with the parties he is expected to include in his coalition.
Mr Netanyahu was granted an extra fortnight to establish an administration on Saturday by President Shimon Peres, after missing the initial one month deadline which passed yesterday. Speaking at the Presidential residence in Jerusalem, he used the opportunity to launch a broadside at Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid leader who has said that he will not join a government that includes Israel’s orthodox parties.
“The main reason that I have not finished forming a government is because there is a boycott of a sector in Israel, and this is unacceptable from my perspective,” the Prime Minister-elect said.
Mr Lapid, who was the surprise of the election in January, winning 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset, campaigned on several social issues including removing a number of benefits for the orthodox Jews, many of whom are not compelled to complete military service like other Israelis. Since the vote Mr Lapid, a former journalist and talk show host, has refused to countenance serving in a government that includes the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ).
According to senior officials Mr Netanyahu was eager to form the broadest possible coalition allowing individual parties to disagree with certain policies without bringing down the government. It is believed that his plan was to include the orthodox parties alongside Yesh Atid, despite its campaign. However, the hand of Mr Lapid - a first time member of the Knesset - was strengthened when Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party said that he would not join a coalition without Mr Lapid, effectively forcing the Prime Minister to include them both in his coalition.
“Is this child’s play? Is this an alliance of soccer fans, in which ‘my word is my word?’ What is that nonsense? A word is a word, but an agreement is not an agreement? I’m not prepared to listen seriously to that type of spinology,” David Shimron, the head of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party negotiating team, told Israel’s Army Radio.
The orthodox parties, which traditionally join the governing coalition, have also been angered by what they see as an attempt by Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett to sideline them.
Knesset member Moshe Gafni from the UTJ yesterday said: “Naftali Bennett is saying, ‘a government can’t be formed without Yair Lapid, and I’m going along with him. But going along with him means that I’m saying that the Haredim aren’t going to be in the coalition.’ What that means is that Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home are shooting an arrow into our heart. They are doing something that must not be done, that hasn’t been done since the State of Israel was established.” Mr Bennett was due to meet the prime minister last night to see if the two men - whose relationship is complicated by Mr Bennett’s former role as Mr Netanyahu’s chief of staff – could thrash out a deal.
So far, only former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the leader of the six-seat Hatnua party, has agreed to join Mr Netanyahu’s administration. And observers are now predicting that deal – which will see Ms Livni take responsibility for the moribund peace process with the Palestinians – could be ripped up given Mr Bennett’s hostility to the idea of a two state solution.
Mr Netanyahu now has until 16 March to form a government. Failure to do so could mean new elections but also threaten the visit of Barack Obama who is due to visit Israel as part of a tour to the region on 20 March. Officials close to the American president have said that Mr Obama is unlikely to visit Israel unless a government is in place.