Adopting a tough stance as coalition negotiations got under way, Israel’s new political star Yair Lapid told aides that his Yesh Atid party could opt to stay in opposition and battle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anticipated budget cuts. If so, “in a year-and-a-half, I’ll replace him as prime minister,” Channel 2 quoted Lapid as saying Sunday.
Lapid’s representatives met Sunday with Netanyahu’s negotiation team, as the prime minister began cobbling together a coalition. The incumbent was formally charged with the task by President Shimon Peres on Saturday night. The talks – with the parties being invited to enter into the negotiations according to the number of seats they won – were held at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan.
Lapid recommended Netanyahu as his choice for prime minister in consultations with Peres last week. But according to Channel 2, he also told his aides, “I’m not sure I’ll be in the coalition. I might lead the opposition. Netanyahu will impose financial cutbacks that will hurt the middle class. In a year-and-a-half, I’ll replace him. That’s what my advisers think too.”
Lapid’s Yesh Atid won 19 seats in the January 22 elections, a surprisingly strong achievement for a party and a leader making their political debut. Uri Shani, a former bureau chief to prime minister Ariel Sharon who works as a senior strategist for Lapid, said Saturday night – at a Yesh Atid celebratory event – that the party would win “many more seats” if elections were held again in the near future.
At the Saturday night party, Lapid stood on stage, arms raised above his head and proclaimed to a rapturous audience, “We won.”
He also played guitar and sang, as did his list’s No. 2, Rabbi Shai Piron. The No. 5 on the list, former Shin Bet intelligence service chief Yaakov Peri, weighed in on trumpet.
Earlier Sunday, the right-wing, national religious Jewish Home party and Yesh Atid informally agreed to push for universal conscription based on a plan detailed by Lapid, should the parties join a coalition headed by Netanyahu.
Upon leaving the discussions, Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel said negotiations between the Likud and his party were constructive.
“The talks were positive and helpful. We discussed a variety of social issues on the agenda, first and foremost a universal draft law,” Ariel said. “We think we can reach an agreement that can bridge the differences with the ultra-Orthodox. We are working to this end and hope to achieve results quickly.”
Lapid has said he would strive to integrate yeshiva students, most of whom are currently exempt from military and national service, into the military and open other avenues of national service to them.
The enlistment issue has in the past been a sticking point with the ultra-Orthodox, and a united Yesh Atid-Jewish Home front on the matter could alienate the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties and potentially leave them out of the coalition.
Aryeh Deri, the outspoken Shas No. 2, expressed disappointment in Lapid as he left the negotiations on Sunday.
“Unfortunately, Lapid is setting conditions whose sole purpose is to block Shas and the ultra-Orthodox from entering the government,” he said. “He who puts forth black-and-white proposals, without a hint of compromise, probably doesn’t want a government that includes the ultra-Orthodox.
“I believe that in a few days, the Jewish Home party won’t be able to accept his conditions either,” he added.
Shas party chairman Eli Yishai, on the other hand, said he didn’t see a big difference between the policies of the Likud and Yesh Atid on ultra-Orthodox enlistment. Rather, he said, the central goals of the next government would be to reduce the cost of living and resolve Israel’s persistent housing shortage.
Despite the differences, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman said he was optimistic about the talks.
“I hope we can form a government within the allotted 28 days,” the former foreign minister said.
Monday will see meetings between Likud-Beytenu and United Torah Judaism, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima.