|Yair Lapid (left) and Naftali Bennett|
The only party to have joined the Likud so far is "The Movement" led by Tsipi Livni. This was quite surprising to many Israelis since the centrist Livni joined a government without knowing which other parties would be involved. She was granted a few cabinet posts and put in charge of overseeing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. As leader of the Kadima party after the previous election, Livni had opted to stay out of the government, despite having a large and powerful party. This time around, she brings a much smaller number of seats. To date, no other parties have been willing to join this coalition, which now numbers 37. A majority of 61 is required to control the Knesset.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been speaking to all of the possible suitors - Labour, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Religious parties. These talks are mainly held behind closed doors and it is really difficult to know exactly what is being demanded, promised or rejected and what genuine information or misinformation is being leaked.
However, it is fairly clear that two of the largest parties, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi have reached some sort of deal under which they will only enter the government together. Apparently, the main piece of the deal centres around the idea that almost all ultra-religious Israelis will be required to serve in the army or the national service, by age 21, with only a small number exempted. Both parties seem to be holding very firm to this demand, even as the ultra-religious Shas party has been attacking the parties for their lack of flexiblity and alleging that they are "anti-Haredi." Tonight, Likud-Beitenu suggested that Yesh Atid was refusing to sit in a government with the ultra-religious parties. However, it is not clear that Yesh Atid has actually taken this position. It may be that they are holding merely steadfast to certain demands - the content of which are entirely unacceptable to the ultra-religious. However, there is a big difference between insisting on some significant policy changes that will affect Haredim (as well as many other Israelis) - versus being "anti-Haredi."
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid seem to have been able to agree on policies in a number of areas, primarily related to domestic issues. Their stated aims are to improve education in Israel, improve life for the middle class, change the relationship of the State and the Ultra-Religious and other issues. Both Bennett and Lapid served in the Israeli Defence Forces and both believe that the burden of mandatory military service should be distributed universally across Israeli society including ultra-religious Jews and Arab Israelis. Overall, in the realm of domestic policy, Bennett does not appear to have staked out any particularly extreme positions, though his party would certainly have a much more right leaning social and domestic agenda than the platform on which Lapid campaigned.
The big question mark is what this means for the future of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Bennett is adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions and has indicated that his party will not support a government that makes any such compromises. Lapid is much more flexible and favours an immediate return to the bargaining table with the Palestinians. Even though both parties oppose any concessions with respect to Jerusalem, it is hard to see how any kind of peace deal could be reached with the Palestinians without significant territorial concessions in other areas. So, ultimately, if both Bennett and Lapid join the Netanyahu-led government together, the government will likely be preoccupied with domestic issues and negotiations with the Palestinians will move down on the priority list, even below where they have been currently.
The big winner so far in the Israeli public forum has been Yair Lapid. Israelis have apparently been very supportive of his determination and resolve in not making concessions to the ultra-orthodox on the issue of universal conscription. Some polls have suggested that Lapid's party would win more than 30 seats if a new election were held now. It may well be that Lapid plans to deal with domestic issues first and then use his momentum and popularity to force a change in the governing coaltion or to force the government to turn its attention to addressing the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in more flexible fashion.
In any event, it seems to me that there are still reasons for Israelis to be cautiously optimistic. Although the Yesh Atid Party may not be able to fulfill all of its promises, the determination that Yair Lapid is showing with respect to domestic issues is a promising sign that some significant, positive changes are on the way.