Netanyahu brings two political first-timers to new coalition

Netanyahu brings two political first-timers to new coalition
After weeks of bargaining, Israel has formed a ruling coalition including two powerful newcomers and, in a surprise move, excluding ultra-Orthodox parties. The bloc is expected to continue settlement policies deemed illegal by the international community.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a last-minute coalition agreement on Friday with rival parties, the secular Yesh Atid and the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party to form the next government. If Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition by Saturday, Israel would be obliged to hold a new election.

“We will work together in the new government for the sake of Israel's citizens. We will act to strengthen Israel's security and to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Israel,” Noga Katz, a spokeswoman for Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu faction told reporters.

After achieving victory in January 22 elections, Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc (which won 31 seats) had difficulty forging a new coalition that would give it a 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset. Two of the main stumbling points in negotiations were reforms to the military draft law and the designation of cabinet posts.

The new government will now comprise a 68-seat majority with a 22-minister cabinet. The coalition is only the third in 35 years to exclude ultra-Orthodox parties.

Yesh Atid, founded by former journalist Yair Lapid, had a surprisingly strong performance in Israel's January election, coming in second. Yesh Atid ran on a ticket pledging to help Israel's middle class and to end draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.

Lapid has been made the country’s finance minister, a huge step for someone with limited financial background.  The 49-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor has shown support for Israelis for whom military service is mandatory when they turn 18 — while ultra-Orthodox men and women get away with not serving. 

That policy steps on Netanyahu’s toes as he has always relied on conservative Jewish support. In the next 45 days the government will have to present a new law on the issue of drafting the ultra-religious to the army. Yesh Atid has been promised the opportunity to head a joint Knesset committee on the Universal Israel Defense Forces draft.

Israeli politician Yair Lapid (L), head of Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party embrace Naftali Bennett, head of the Israeli hardline national religious party the Jewish Home (AFP Photo / Uriel Sinal)

The other new political heavyweight is former software entrepreneur Naftali Bennett from the Jewish Home Party, supported by religious settlers as he advocated the expropriation of more West Bank territories during his campaign. Bennett has been appointed Minister of Economy and Trade. His deputy will become the Minister of Construction and Housing, making it more difficult for Netanyahu to freeze or stop settlement construction.

Following the formation of the government Bennett said in statement, "We promised during the elections to take care of the cost of living, to increase economic competitiveness and to return the Jewish spirit to the state – and now we have got the tools for this. This is the government of big opportunity, and we will not miss it. Next week we start working – all of us together."

Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also joined Netanyahu's coalition last month after being promised that she would be the chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile Netanyahu's bloc, which has traditionally relied on support from ultra-conservative Jews, will retain control of the defense and interior ministries.

The new government is to be sworn in on Monday March 18, two days before US President Barack Obama arrives in Israel.

Among the stated priorities of the new government are fiscal responsibility, lowering the cost of living and containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.