Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu changed his approach to coalition talks 180 degrees on Sunday night and unexpectedly invited Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party to join the government he is forming.
Lapid complained last week that his party was not being invited to coalition talks.
Netanyahu had not spoken out in favor of Yesh Atid joining the coalition since he met with Lapid shortly after the January 22 election.
Relations between Netanyahu and Lapid deteriorated following a statement the Yesh Atid leader made about running against Netanyahu in the next general election. The prime minister vowed in closed conversations not to form a coalition without haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, while Lapid was quoted as saying he would not join a government with them.
But a political pact Lapid made with Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett made it impossible for Netanyahu to form a coalition without both Bayit Yehudi (12 Knesset seats) and Yesh Atid (19). Shortly before Netanyahu’s invitation to Lapid was sent to the press on Sunday night, Likud sources said the prime minister had realized he had no choice but to back down.
“Netanyahu calls for the formation of a government with a majority from the nationalist camp and invites Yesh Atid to join as well,” a Likud statement said. “Bayit Yehudi was the first party that received an offer to join Netanyahu’s government.
The main campaign promise Bayit Yehudi made to its voters was that it would join a Netanyahu-led government and strengthen it from the right. The only thing currently stopping the formation of a government with a majority from the nationalist camp is the refusal of Bayit Yehudi to join the government.”
Likud Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi negotiating teams met late on Sunday following the conclusion of Purim to discuss the as yet unpassed 2013 state budget and a compromise proposal for equalizing the burden of service that Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid had agreed on.
Bennett persuaded Lapid to make significant concessions on the issue, including increasing the limit on yeshiva students who do not serve, raising the age at which haredim will be drafted, and not fining draft evaders personally.
“The gaps between our parties are not as wide as the statements of Bennett and his associates would indicate,” a source in the Likud Beytenu negotiating team was quoted as saying before the meeting.
In a statement seen by his supporters as his last chance to let off steam before joining the coalition, Bennett wrote on Facebook that he made the pact with Lapid, because the Likud had decided to leave Bayit Yehudi out of the government.
“Without coordinating with Lapid, there would have been a government of Likud Beytenu, The Tzipi Livni Party, Yesh Atid, Kadima and Shas without Bayit Yehudi,” Bennett wrote.
“Such a government would have proceeded according to Livni’s diplomatic approach of concessions in Jerusalem and Ariel and obsessing over the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Our coordination changed the map and forced the Likud to bring in Bayit Yehudi. Thanks to the coordination, now the government will be oriented toward internal socioeconomic issues and not only diplomatic ones. We will not veer from our principles, and the public can judge us over the next four years.”
Lapid’s spokeswoman declined to react to Netanyahu’s apparent change of heart. But Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, who has coordinated his recent moves with Lapid, wrote an optimistic statement on Twitter.
“Even with two mandates, we will fight for the same principles we worked to advance with 28 [which Kadima won in the 2009 election], including restarting diplomatic talks, equalizing the burden of service, a new socioeconomic agenda and changing the electoral system,” Mofaz wrote. “After we joined the government to advance these issues and left it when they were not implemented, I hope and believe that these will be the principles on which the next government will be based.”
Shas officials responded defiantly that if their party was left out of the coalition, Netanyahu would regret the decision much more than they would. In closed conversations they blamed Bennett for boycotting them.
“We won’t be miserable if we are not in the coalition,” Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev said. “The prime minister has a right to decide what he feels is best for him politically, but for the country it’s very wrong. He won’t be able to run the country without the haredim, and the socioeconomic problems will multiply. The prime minister will pay the price when the threats come from the strange bond of Lapid and Bennett. The Likud will be sorry."