Key politician backs Netanyahu but tough coalition talks ahead

Jerusalem: A key politician on Tuesday threw his backing behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following last week’s elections but signalled tough negotiations to form a coalition were ahead.

Former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s public endorsement of Netanyahu came as President Reuven Rivlin wrapped up consultations with party heads on the subject.

Rivlin must choose who will form the next government and is expected to pick Netanyahu to do so on Wednesday night after final election results are announced.

Lieberman, head of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, had held off on publicly backing Netanyahu until Monday night, when he did so before supporters.

His party also told Rivlin on Tuesday that it would back Netanyahu, and Yisrael Beitenu’s five seats will be crucial for the prime minister as he forms his next coalition.

Results so far from the April 9 vote show Netanyahu’s Likud and allied right-wing parties, including Yisrael Beitenu, with 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

But Lieberman also said he would condition his joining the coalition on the adoption of a law aimed at having ultra-Orthodox Jews serve in the military like their secular counterparts.

He has insisted that the version of the law he proposed when he was defence minister be adopted in full and says he will even remain in the opposition or be prepared to go to new elections if he does not receive assurances on the subject.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in religious seminaries are currently exempt from mandatory military service, a practice many Israelis view as unfair.

But attempts to change the law have met with strong opposition from ultra-Orthodox political parties, which will control 15 seats in the next governing coalition.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up some 10 percent of Israel’s nearly nine million population.

Complications in passing a law on the subject contributed to the holding of early elections last week.

Lieberman resigned as defence minister in November after accusing Netanyahu of being soft on Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip.