At first meeting since election, PM and Kahlon discuss economy, not party merger

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon met Thursday morning to discuss matters relating to the economy, but reportedly did not discuss the possibility of Kahlon’s four-seat faction merging with Likud.

The meeting took place at the prime minister’s private residence in the northern town of Caesarea and the two party leaders were due to meet again next week, Hebrew-language media reported.

Earlier in the week it was suggested the notion of a merger between the parties was on the agenda for the meeting, but Kahlon has reportedly cooled on the idea and the matter was apparently not raised.

On Monday, Channel 13 news reported Netanyahu had been mulling offering Kahlon the post of foreign minister, a high-profile position that he kept for himself during his previous term. It said the prime minister had made the offer in a telephone call on Sunday. However, Kahlon, who served as finance minister in the outgoing government, is believed to be insisting on holding on to that position.

Thursday’s meeting was the two leaders’ first since the April 9 election. Netanyahu has already sat down with all the other parties he hopes to fold into his coalition, namely Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Kahlon has previously said he would not support the prime minister remaining in office if he is charged in the three corruption cases in which he is facing indictment pending a hearing.

Kahlon cut his teeth as a Likud politician, passing popular reforms as communications minister before leaving the party and taking a break from politics in 2012 amid rumors of tensions with Netanyahu. He founded Kulanu in 2015, becoming the most senior partner in the Netanyahu-led government following that year’s election, with 10 seats.

If he enters the new coalition, Kulanu’s current four seats will make it the smallest party in the government. Despite his poorer showing, Kahlon is insisting on keeping the Finance Ministry for himself and having MK Eli Cohen stay on as economy minister.

Still, the demands of Kulanu, a party which has focused on economic issues, are thought to pale in comparison to those which will be made by Netanyahu’s other likely coalition partners.

On Sunday, negotiators for Yisrael Beytenu and Likud met for the first round of coalition negotiations, with the former presenting a list of demands on security, immigration, and religion and state issues.

The sides failed to come to any agreement and said they would meet again at a later date.

The most thorny issue is expected to be legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students, which the secularist Liberman is insisting should be passed without amendment, while ultra-Orthodox parties have said they will not join the coalition if it is advanced without changes.

Both Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox are essential for Netanyahu if he is to assemble a governing coalition with a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset. His Likud party won 35 seats in the election.

Liberman has backed Netanyahu as the next premier, cementing the right-wing coalition at 65 seats. But his party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.

The Union of Right-Wing Parties is demanding the justice and education portfolios, as well as wide-ranging legislative concessions.

URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich also reiterated Sunday that the party aims to push legislation amending the law providing immunity from prosecution for MKs. As things stand, an MK can seek immunity from prosecution via a majority in the Knesset House Committee and the plenum; URWP seeks to revert to the version of the law that was in force until 2005, under which an MK was automatically granted immunity from prosecution unless the House Committee and then a majority of MKs in the plenum voted to lift it.

Smotrich denied on Sunday that he was seeking to change the law in order to help Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges in three cases pending a hearing.

“The immunity law is not intended to serve the prime minister. He is not the story here, and this legislation, or something like it, is necessary even if Netanyahu opposes it,”said Smotrich. “This is a law intended to serve the Israeli public and democracy, a law that aims… to enable elected officials to devote their time and efforts to the state and not to hearings in the courts.”

A source in the party claimed to Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu might actually oppose such legislation, since it would bring him into open conflict with the state prosecution. But Yedioth also noted that URWP initiating such legislation might be convenient for him, since he could claim not to be behind the initiative while potentially benefiting from it.

Netanyahu has denied all allegations of wrongdoing and asserted that he has no need for immunity since he is confident he will not be indicted. At the same time, in the run-up to the elections, he gave mixed messages about whether he would seek or back legislative initiatives, including a so-called “French Law” to render him immune to prosecution so long as he is prime minister.

Netanyahu has until mid-May, and possibly several weeks longer, to assemble a coalition, after President Reuven Rivlin tasked him with forming a government.

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