Netanyahu Excludes Religious Parties from Ruling Coalition

Centrists are expected to replace right-wing religious parties in Israel’s government.

Israeli politicians Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu embrace after the swearing in of the new Knesset in Jerusalem, February 5
Israeli politicians Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu embrace after the swearing in of the new Knesset in Jerusalem, February 5 (EPA/Ronen Zvulun)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu excluded religious parties that propped up his previous governments from a ruling coalition forged on Thursday to pull in centrists who emerged with strong support from January’s election.

The parties led by former television personality Yair Lapid and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni won nineteen and six seats respectively in the Knesset earlier this year, appealing mainly to middle-class voters with promises to overhaul the nation’s education system, reduce a housing shortage and abolish a military draft exemption for Jewish seminary students.

Many in Netanyahu’s conservative party similarly favored abolishing the exemption on orthodox Jews from serving in the military but the prime minister was unable to do so while he depended on fringe religious parties for his majority.

The same parties balked at Netanyahu’s call for deeper spending cuts, fearing they would reduce state stipends for their religious institutions.

Israel’s government deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year. Netanyahu is a fiscal conservative who has promised to reduce the shortfall.

The premier’s Likud party, which merged its list with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu in an attempt to consolidate the right-wing vote, got 31 out of 120 seats in the last election, eleven fewer than the two parties had held separately.

Likud‘s loss was Naftali Bennett’s gain whose nationalist Jewish Home won twelve seats. Many conservative voters switched to Jewish Home because it more staunchly advocates settlement construction in West Bank territory that is claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Even if Lapid and Livni favor resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, Bennett, who promised before the election that he would do anything he could “to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel,” will join the coalition as well. Israeli media speculate that he will get the industry and trade portfolio in the new cabinet.