JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed deals with key coalition partners Friday, forming a new government just before a deadline and a milestone visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The new coalition is the first in a decade to exclude ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. It includes two new rising stars who have vowed to end a system of draft exemptions and welfare subsidies granted to thousands of ultra-Orthodox students.
The alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud party and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu had been locked in intense negotiations for 40 days with the centrist Yesh Atid and far-right Jewish Home parties, which held the key to building a government with a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
“The prime minister welcomes the coalition agreements that have been signed between the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, and the Yesh Atid party and the Jewish Home,” Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement, about an hour before the start of the Jewish Sabbath which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
“On Saturday evening, the prime minister will inform President Shimon Peres that he has completed the task” of forming a government, it said.
Netanyahu welcomed the agreement in a statement.
“We will work together in the new government for the sake of Israel’s citizens. We will act to strengthen Israel’s security and to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu had a legal deadline of Saturday evening to come up with a coalition or admit defeat.
He had previously signed with the centrist Hatnuah party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is to be justice minister and Israel’s negotiator in talks with the Palestinians. She joined Netanyahu’s coalition last month with promises that she would be his chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians.
With Yesh Atid and Jewish Home on board, the coalition will command a total of 68 parliamentary seats.
The new Cabinet is expected to be sworn in by parliament Monday, 48 hours before the arrival of Obama.
Copies of the coalition agreements published by the Likud confirmed that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid would be finance minister and that his party, which has 19 seats in parliament, would also take the education, social services, health, and science and technology portfolios.
The Jewish Home, a party linked to the West Bank settler movement, won 12 seats, and has the Housing and Trade ministries.
Netanyahu’s bloc, meanwhile, will retain control of the powerful defense and interior ministries.
The allocation of ministries for Likud-Beitenu was not detailed, but Netanyahu was expected to temporarily handle foreign affairs, pending the conclusion of former Foreign Minister Lieberman’s trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust.
Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beitenu ran on a joint ticket with Netanyahu’s Likud, with the list winning 31 seats.
The Likud was also to take charge of the defense and interior ministries, according to press reports.
The Likud said coalition members pledged among other things to pursue “a peace agreement with the Palestinians with the aim of reaching a political agreement that will end the conflict.”
If such a deal could be negotiated, it would be put to the Cabinet, parliament and a national referendum for approval, the party said.
Finance Minister Lapid is a former TV anchor whose upstart political party was the biggest surprise in the election.
Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party won a more-than-expected 19 seats in the Jan. 22 election, the second most behind Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu alliance’s 31 seats.
Lapid, who will replace Yuval Steinitz once a new government is sworn in, ran largely on a platform of easing financial pressures on the middle class through the need to share the burden – a rejection of privileges for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The new minister faces a major fiscal challenge in trying to reduce a budget deficit that reached 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, double an initial target of 2 percent.