US officials preparing for President Barack Obama's visit to Israel have told their Israeli counterparts that the visit will be cancelled if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a new government by mid-March. Obama is due to land in Israel on March 20th.
The deadline set by President Shimon Peres for the new government to be in place expires on teh evening of Saturday, 2nd March. Due to the difficulties faced by Netanyahu it is expected that an extension of 14 days will be requested; if he has still not cobbled together another coalition by the end of the extension period then another Knesset Member will be invited to do so.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday, political officials in Israel have confirmed that the White House is preparing for a possible cancellation of Obama's visit.
Netanyahu's difficulties arise from the alliance between the Yesh Atid Party, headed by Yair Lapid, and Jewish Home Party, headed by Naftali Bennett. Both have made any agreement with Likud conditional on the lowering of the age for recruitment into the army of young ultra-Orthodox men and women (Haredim) to 21, and not 24, as proposed by Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance. Netanyahu wants the older age in order to ensure the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties in his government.
Although press reports mention an understanding between Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid Jewish Home, Lapid has said that he refuses to join a government with the Haredim parties. Likud -Yisrael Beiteinu's chief negotiator, attorney David Shimron, said at the close of negotiations with Yesh Atid on Thursday, that a lot of time was spent to clarify Yesh Atid's position on the inclusion of Haredim parties in the government. "The response we got," he added, "was that, in terms of practicality, and in the opinion of Yesh Atid, there is no place for the Haredim in the next government."
A spokesperson for Yesh Atid, meanwhile, said that the party will continue to stick to its principles. "These have gained us the trust of the public; we hope that the structure of the new government will reflect the will of the people by making changes that express the new agenda of the State of Israel."
The leader of the Shas Party, Aryeh Deri MK, followed this up by saying that Yesh Atid leader Lapid is "waging a campaign of hatred" against the Haredim. "It has now become clear that behind the alleged concern about spreading the burden [of military service and taxation] equally there is hatred towards the Haredim," he claimed.
The alliance between centre-right Yesh Atid and extreme right-wing Jewish Home, which represents Israeli settlers, requires that both parties should join the government or both should be in opposition; there is no room for one to split away leaving the other isolated.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has only signed-up one extra coalition partner to-date, old rival Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah Party. It has been agreed that Livni will take charge of the justice portfolio, with the party also looking after environment issues. Livni will lead peace negotiations with the Palestinians, should they ever resume. In an example of how complex coalition talks can get, Jewish Home has made it clear that it will not join a coalition with Livni in such a role. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu denies that this is the case.
A poll published by Haaretz newspaper on Friday suggested that if an election was to be held in Israel today, Netanyahu's bloc would see its Knesset membership fall from 31 to 26 seats. Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid would, on the other hand, gain 11 seats, to end up with 31; Jewish Home would gain one extra seat, leaving it with 13 MKs. Both the Labour Party and the extreme right-wing religious parties would have reduced numbers of MKs, the poll claimed.
Source: Tel Aviv (UBI)