Netanyahu signs up first two partners for coalition government

His Likud party won a surprise victory in a March 17 election but its 30 parliamentary seats

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made strides toward forming a new government on Wednesday, signing coalition deals with two parties, a week before the deadline to present a cabinet.

His Likud party won a surprise victory in a March 17 election but its 30 parliamentary seats, although the most of any single party, still left him the task of forging a majority in the 120-member legislature in order to govern.

On Wednesday, he inked alliances with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party and the center-right Kulanu, putting a combined total of 46 seats under his command.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, who campaigned on a platform of social reform, was promised the finance portfolio, statements from his party and Likud said.

“In the forthcoming government we shall press ahead with reforms on housing, banking and work to narrow the gaps in Israeli society,” they quoted him as saying at the signing ceremony.

Public radio said early Thursday that Kulanu would also receive the environmental protection and construction ministries.

A separate Likud statement announced the agreement with UTJ.

“I think that the agreement we reached is a good agreement,” it quoted the ultra-Orthodox party’s Yaakov Litzman as saying.

Ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabat said the deal included the contentious repeal of legislation enabling criminal sanctions against draft dodgers.

The radio said it was agreed that Litzman would serve as deputy health minister, while fellow UTJ member Moshe Gafni would head the powerful parliamentary finance committee.

Historically, ultra-Orthodox men in full-time study at a yeshiva (Jewish seminary) have enjoyed exemptions from Israel’s compulsory military service.

An act passed last year, effective from 2017, required yeshiva students to either serve in the military or perform civilian national service.

It contained a clause setting out sanctions against draft dodgers, including imprisonment, enraging the ultra-Orthodox leadership who say it would be tantamount to jailing people for practicing their faith.

Local media predicted that the far-right Jewish Home party, ultra-Orthodox Shas and the hardline anti-Arab Yisrael Beitenu of incumbent Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would also sign up with Netanyahu ahead of the May 6 deadline, boosting the alliance to a comfortable 67 votes in parliament.

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