Far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman is expected to be renamed as Defence Minister, ending weeks of deadlock in talks to form a new ruling coalition in Israel. According to local media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to hand the defence portfolio back to Lieberman, just six months after he suddenly resigned from the post after a spat about Israel's policy in the besieged Gaza Strip.
According to a report by Ynet, "An unnamed source involved in the negotiation process between the Prime Minister and Lieberman said that new guidelines regarding Israel's strategy towards [Hamas in Gaza] have been agreed on." The Israeli daily added that Lieberman yesterday held meetings with the IDF Chief of Staff and Shin Bet officials, with Netanyahu's approval. "This," the newspaper said, "has added to speculation" that Lieberman will resume his former role.
Moldova-born Lieberman has previously called for a "decisive" policy against the coastal enclave, saying somewhat cryptically earlier this month that, "The [Israeli army] has detailed plans, Netanyahu is familiar with them, the time has come to implement them." He stressed that he would not agree to be Defence Minister again "in a situation in which policy is decided but not implemented."
Lieberman's other demands – among which are the Haredi draft law, which will see male ultra-Orthodox Jews conscripted into the Israeli army – have seemingly yet to be reconciled. This demand has proved a crucial sticking point in coalition talks, pitting several of Netanyahu's presumed coalition partners against one another.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties – United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas – have vehemently opposed Lieberman's attempts to conscript their community into the army, forcing a vote on the draft law to be postponed repeatedly during the last Knesset. The law was widely expected to prove a difficult obstacle in coalition talks, with neither side willing to concede defeat.
Much of this unwillingness has been fuelled by the increased strength of Yisrael Beiteinu, UTJ and Shas, all of which performed well in Israel's General Election last month. Lieberman in particular has been unrelenting in his demands, seeking to capitalise on his "kingmaker" position; his party won five seats in the election, the exact number which stands between Netanyahu and a majority government.
Ynet added that, thus far, Netanyahu's Likud negotiations team has "asked that the ultra-Orthodox parties approve the draft law as is," promising that "the government will change the quotas after the law is approved so that the actual number of Haredis drafted remains the same." At the time of writing, however, UTJ head Yaakov Litzman had not agreed to Likud's proposal, saying that he needed to consult with his rabbinic leader before making a decision.
Despite today's apparent breakthrough in coalition talks, Netanyahu still has a number of disagreements to resolve if he is to meet the 29 May deadline to form a government. Following the 9 April election, he was tasked with forming the new government by Israel's President, Reuven Rivlin, due to his position as incumbent Prime Minister.
However, due to the impasse between his coalition factions, Netanyahu was earlier this month forced to ask for a two-week extension to form a government. If he remains unsuccessful by the end of May, the task will fall to presumed opposition leader Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance won the same number of seats as Netanyahu's Likud.
Former Chief of Staff Gantz, however, is likely to struggle to form a coalition, given his apparent refusal to work with the Arab-Israeli parties Hadash-Ta'al and Ra'am-Balad and the weakness of the left-wing parties in the wake of the election.