JERUSALEM — For the first time in years, Israel’s new government will not include representatives from the country’s ultraorthodox religious parties, a condition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to Thursday to form a coalition that will allow him to be sworn in for a third term.
Under the agreement, Netanyahu bowed to the demands of his two main coalition partners, Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, that he cut the number of Cabinet ministers in half, leaving 20 posts to fill. The likely result is expected to be curbs on what many Israelis believe is preferential treatment for the ultra religious, who make up 10 percent of the population but rarely serve in the army or the workforce.
The new government will be sworn in Monday, two days before President Obama is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem for his first visit as president.
“It almost didn’t happen,” said Shalom Yerushalmi, a political analyst for the Maariv newspaper. He said that despite “pulling every trick,” Netanyahu was forced to make concessions to Lapid and Bennett, both political newcomers. “They were able to force Netanyahu to his knees,” he said.
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Despite vastly differing political philosophies, Lapid and Bennett forged a common front based on a mutual desire to change the “old guard” of Israel’s political elite. Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s political aide years ago, famously left the prime minister’s office after a heated dispute. Lapid, a well-known television personality, was fond on his show of criticizing Netanyahu’s policies as “antiquated” and out of touch with the common person.
“The next term will be one of the most challenging in the history of the state,” Netanyahu told his Likud-Beitenu political party Thursday. “We are facing great security and diplomatic challenges.”
In addition to Lapid and Bennett, an old Netanyahu rival, Tzipi Livni, will join the government as minister of justice and “minister in charge of the peace process.” Israeli officials, however, said peace talks were not likely a high priority of the next government.
Although Netanyahu’s party earned the most seats in the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections — 31 — he struggled against the Lapid-Bennett union, who between them also won 31 seats. In the end, Netanyahu was forced to concede key ministries to the two; Lapid is expected to become finance minister and Bennett, minister of trade and industry.
Netanyahu tried to put the best face on the result, noting to party followers that they had held onto several key positions, including the foreign and defense portfolios.
Netanyahu will serve as acting foreign minister until a court case is resolved against former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who’s accused of fraud and breach of trust while in office. Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon will serve as defense minister, after a long career in Israel’s security establishment.
Through the coalition government system, ultraorthodox parties have traditionally wielded disproportionate influence by ensuring a parliamentary majority for a string of prime ministers.
The ultraorthodox parties used their kingmaker status to secure vast budgets for their religious schools and seminaries, which teach students about Judaism but very little math, English or science.
Tens of thousands of young ultraorthodox males are granted exemptions from military service to pursue their religious studies, and older men collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.