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Israel election: Right-wing seeks alliance with ultra-Orthodox to curtail Lieberman’s power

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]
The then Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a speech during an Economic Conference on 24 December, 2014 in the Israeli Mediterranean Coastal city of Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

The Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) has approached ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) in a post-election manoeuvre to curtail the power of former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Israel’s new ruling coalition.

Following Israel’s dramatic election on Tuesday, newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to discuss with other parties their place in his ruling coalition. The coalition will not be officially confirmed until the parties present their recommendations for the premiership to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, on Wednesday.

The coalition is widely expected to include Netanyahu’s long-time allies Shas and UTJ, Kulanu and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, as well as the newly-formed Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP), a religious-Zionist alliance comprised of the Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties.

After almost losing, Benjamin Netanyahu comes 1st in 2019 Israeli election - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

After almost losing, Benjamin Netanyahu comes 1st in 2019 Israeli election – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

However, this ruling coalition will hold only 65 Knesset seats in total, just four above the 61 needed for a majority government in the 120-seat parliament. Lieberman’s five seat victory on Tuesday has put him in a strong position to force his agenda – which includes attacking the besieged Gaza Strip and dismantling the ultra-Orthodox’ influence in Israel – and potentially bring down the government if he disagrees with its policies.

To counter Lieberman’s strength, URWP leader Rafi Peretz yesterday reached out to Shas and UTJ to form a technical bloc that would see the parties work together in the Knesset. Though a technical bloc stops short of merging the parties into an alliance – as was agreed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid when they formed the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance – the manoeuvre would see the three parties work together to further their agendas.

According to the Times of Israel, Peretz proposed the bloc “in order to arrive at next week’s coalition negotiations with more influence, particularly on issues of religion and state on which the three parties largely agree,” but also envisaged that the bloc would work together in future Knesset votes.

Such a bloc could prove powerful; with Shas’ eight, UTJ’s seven and URWP’s five seats, the 20-seat bloc would be second only to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and would likely curtail Lieberman’s ability to play the coalition’s components off against one another to further his own agenda.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have not yet responded to Peretz’s overtures.

READ: US to announce ‘deal of the century’ after Israel coalition formed

Other parties have also begun negotiations to bolster their position, including Netanyahu’s ruling Likud. Netanyahu has a difficult year ahead, particularly in light of his corruption trial which is slated for June. A number of parties made pre-election promises that they would not sit in government with Netanyahu if he is indicted which, if they remain true to their word, could destabilise the coalition.

To tackle this problem, Likud has reportedly reached out to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party – which won four seats in Tuesday’s election – to suggest a merger. Unlike the URWP-Shas-UTJ technical bloc, the initiative would see Kulanu absorbed into the Likud party, adding its four seats to Likud’s 36 to create a 40-seat behemoth.

A source close to Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post that the prime minister “wants to form mega-conservative party”, while the Israeli daily added that the move was motivated by the fact that “if Kahlon joins Likud, no party that is expected to be in the coalition would quit” if Netanyahu is indicted later this year.

In return, Kahlon is demanding that he retain the finance portfolio, a position he has occupied since the last election in 2015. Kahlon also wants Kulanu to be given another cabinet position, a demand which will likely go unfulfilled if he doesn’t agree to the merger given the small number of Knesset seats his party occupies.

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