"We kept the important portfolios. The important thing is we regained the defense portfolio and kept the foreign affairs portfolio. These are the most important portfolios for running the country," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Likud-Beiteinu faction meeting Thursday after reaching an agreement to form a new coalition government that is expected to try to curb years of preferential treatment for the ultra-Orthodox.
"We maintained a majority in the government. This is what matters," he said.
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During the meeting it was determined that Knesset Member Yuli Edelstein will be the party's candidate to replace Reuven Rivlin as Knesset speaker. Rivlin was the only faction member to abstain from the vote.
Addressing incoming finance minister Yair Lapid,
Likud-Beiteinu faction meeting, Thursday (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Netanyahu said, "The first goal of the government is to pass a responsible budget; a budget that will preserve Israel's economy and continue the growth, which will secure workplaces in the Israeli market."
The Likud leader opened by saying that the final details of the agreement with the two main coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi , were being worked out. The partners are expected to sign the agreement later in the day. If everything goes according to plan, Israel's 33rd government will be sworn in early next week.
"The next term will be one of the most challenging in Israel's history. This is not an exaggeration. We are facing security and diplomatic challenges. It is important that this government be able to respond to these challenges," said Netanyahu, who is entering his third term as prime minister.
The new coalition, agreed after weeks of deadlock, will be the first in a decade, and one of the few in Israeli history, to exclude ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
It includes two new rising stars in Israeli politics and is well positioned to end a controversial system of draft exemptions and generous welfare subsidies granted to ultra-Orthodox seminary students.
Video courtesy of jn1.tv
Nonetheless, Netanyahu's senior partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, is vowing to at least make an effort to restart negotiations. The peace process remained frozen throughout Netanyahu's previous four-year term, when his right-wing party partnered with other hard-line and ultra-Orthodox factions.
"We have to begin talks with the Palestinians immediately. We need to sit at the negotiation table. We haven't sat there for four years," said Yael German of Yesh Atid, who is expected to serve as the new Health Minister.
"Let's sit and proceed toward a peace agreement. It is essential," she told Army Radio.
Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu faction wrapped up weeks of coalition negotiations with Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi overnight.
The deal was expected to be signed later in the day, and the new government should be sworn on Monday, just two days before President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive.
Although Netanyahu's bloc emerged as the biggest faction in the Jan. 22 election with 31 seats, he struggled to form a coalition with the necessary 61-seat majority of 120 seats in parliament. His new coalition is expected to control a 68-seat majority.
The negotiations stalled over several thorny issues, including the division of key Cabinet portfolios and plans to reform the draft.
Both Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi campaigned on a platform calling for an end to the contentious system, which has allowed the ultra-Orthodox to evade compulsory army service and collect welfare while the majority of Israelis serve in the military and pay taxes.
Netanyahu had courted ultra-Orthodox parties, who have been his traditional coalition partners. But with a
Saturday deadline looming, Yesh Atid leader Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett forced him to leave the religious parties out of the coalition.
In recent decades, ultra-Orthodox parties have used their kingmaker status to secure budgets for their minority religious schools and seminaries.
Tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox males are granted exemptions from military service in order to devote their lives, theoretically at least, to religious study. The benefits have sparked animosity among the wider Israeli public.
Lapid, who leads the second-largest party in parliament with 19 seats, is set to serve as the new finance minister, a position with great influence over the budget. His party will also control the Education Ministry.
Habayit Hayehudi will control the housing and trade ministries.
Both Bennett and Lapid formed a close alliance during the coalition negotiations, with near identical positions on the need to curb ultra-Orthodox power and the high cost of living.
Social issues weighed heavy in the election and campaign promises to improve lives for the middle class benefited both Lapid and Bennett.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in the summer of 2011 to demonstrate against the gaps between rich and poor, low wages and skyrocketing housing prices.
AP contributed to the report
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