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Prime Minister Netanyahu Forms Coalition Before Midnight Deadline

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A deal for a new government was announced in Israel just before midnight local time. That was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's deadline to form his new coalition after parliamentary elections in March. Although his Likud Party won the most seats, coalition negotiations proved tougher than expected. NPR's Emily Harris joins us from Jerusalem to talk about what Israel's fourth Netanyahu-led government looks like. And Emily, first, who is in this new government?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Well, Robert, there are four parties in the government in addition to Netanyahu's own Likud Party. Likud, as you mentioned, is by far the biggest faction, but the other parties have their own aims, and Netanyahu had to make concessions to form this coalition government. One party, for example, is led by a politician, Moshe Kahlon, who insisted on guarantees that he could make economic reforms when he agreed to join the government. There are two ultra-Orthodox religious parties which have very specific agendas to serve their constituents. And then the party that Netanyahu was negotiating with down to the wire is the nationalist religious party that strongly supports increasing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That's the Jewish Home led by Naftali Bennett. We don't have full details of the final deal they struck, although apparently Bennett did get the key Justice Ministry as well as education and some other things. There is enough of an official agreement, though, at this point to go forward.

SIEGEL: In the opposition, then, who is not in the government?

HARRIS: (Laughter) It's a pretty close split. In the - not in the government is the Zionist Union, which is the Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and combined with a party led by Tzipi Livni. For this election, there's also a further left party and a new coalition of Arab parties. Four smaller Arab, predominantly Arab-Israeli parties joined together to form one party on the ticket this time. And so they will be the third largest faction in parliament.

SIEGEL: Now, there also is in opposition, rather than in the government, the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister. It was thought he'd be part of the Netanyahu government. Surprisingly, two days ago he announced he wouldn't. How did that change things?

HARRIS: Well, that is what made Naftali Bennett absolutely vital to Netanyahu. Without Bennett, Netanyahu wouldn't have had the majority in Parliament. As it is with this coalition, he'll only have 61 out of the 120 seats in Parliament, so just a one-vote majority.

SIEGEL: When Netanyahu called this election last December two years before his term was up - he didn't have to have an election - he said he wanted to get a better government. Well, from what we see today, did he get a better government?

HARRIS: It's hard to tell today, but what seems apparent that he may wind up having less wiggle room - less room to maneuver in the fractious politics in Israel. This government is quite fragile, and it's dependent on parties with - as we talked about, have really different agendas. A lot of commentators here are actually expecting that this new government will not last very long, at least in the form that it is. There's speculation that the opposition - the major opposition party, the Zionist Union, would potentially join the government at some point, or at least that Netanyahu might try to woo some of its members to splinter off and join him on their own.

There's also the threat that any of these current partners could leave if they don't get what they want to get done. And then there's a significant difference in the fact that there's two religious parties back in the government - different from the previous Netanyahu government. There were no religious parties in that one, and that was the - that had been the first time that there weren't religious parties in the government for quite sometime.

SIEGEL: In fact, there was a militantly secular party in the government which is now in opposition. There were some policies the ultra-Orthodox didn't like, and I gather that some of those policies will be rolled back in order to get them into this new government?

HARRIS: Some probably will be rolled back. They involve whether ultra-Orthodox will be drafted. They involve whether ultra-Orthodox schools will have to teach core-curriculum things like English and math. These are really divisive issues, and in fact, I mean, not just around religious issues, but divisions in Israel's society is what makes having a stable coalition government so difficult right now.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Emily.

HARRIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem on Israel's newly formed coalition government. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.