JERUSALEM, Feb. 7 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Thursday, seeking to iron out sharp divisions and reach compromise that may facilitate the latter's incorporation in the government.
Both men first met on Jan. 24, two days after the centrist Yesh Atid stunned the political establishment and the Israeli public by winning 19 seats in parliamentary elections, making Lapid, formerly a popular newsman, the leader of the second-largest party in the Knesset.
Local media outlets cited both Netanyahu and Lapid reporting "a very good atmosphere" at Thursday's two-hour meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, "but made no real progress" on the matter of the latter joining the next Israeli coalition.
Details of the meeting were not made available, but the two agreed to meet again in the near future.
With three weeks remaining to form a government, Netanyahu is seeking as broad a coalition as possible to ensure stability in his third term as premier. Likud-Beiteinu officials said Netanyahu envisages a coalition that includes Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the far-right Jewish Home and smaller center-left parties.
But Lapid, who unequivocally promised Israeli voters to end the sweeping exemptions from military service given to the country's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, is awaiting Netanyahu's intentions regarding this issue that for decades has divided Israelis.
The Times of Israel on Thursday quoted sources in Yesh Atid as saying that, Lapid, who decisively announced in the immediate aftermath of the elections that he would not be part of an anti- Netanyahu bloc in the Knesset, was now "genuinely prepared" to remain out of the coalition "if it became clear to him that Netanyahu was not intent on passing legislation" to draft the ultra-Orthodox into either military or national service.
The sources underscored that the religious draft highlighted Yesh Atid's election campaign and remains a key component of the party's platform. Lapid's proposal calls for a gradual inscription of the ultra-Orthodox over a five-year period, during which men would also be integrated into the work force.
Netanyahu, they said, must now determine the composition and direction of his government before Lapid would determine his political future, according to The Times of Israel.
Yesh Atid officials had previously said the party would be hard pressed to be part of a coalition that would include the ultra- Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, who together won 18 seats in the elections.
As further testament to the obstacles impeding Netanyahu's efforts to form the 33rd government, local media earlier this week disclosed a highly unusual understanding forged between Lapid and Naftali Bennet, leader of the ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi, that their parties would both either join the coalition or remain in the opposition unless Netanyahu issues iron-clad guarantees on the issue of the religious draft.
In the unlikely event that Lapid and Bennett would ultimately decide to move their combined 31 seats to the opposition, Netanyahu would not be able to secure the minimum 61-seat majority required to form a government.
Some pundits have pointed that Yesh Atid's meteoric ascent in Israeli politics has presented Netanyahu with "a historic opportunity," albeit one that was forced upon him, to push forward dramatic socio-economic reforms: a more equal sharing of civic duties, lowering housing prices and workers' rights, among others.
However, Likud officials have called Yesh Atid's demands for joining the next government "exaggerated and arrogant," The Jerusalem Post reported Thursday.
The officials said that both Yesh Atid and the ultra-Orthodox parties would have to compromise for the sake of a broad, stable government that would be capable of avoiding periodic coalition shakeups.
In their Thursday meeting, Netanyahu sought to convince Lapid that Shas's inclusion in the government is inevitable, as well as that of the Jewish Home, and pushed for a compromise that would enable the formation of a broad unity government that would jump- start the moribund peace process and press forward significant social reforms, the Ynet news service reported.
Aside from disagreement over the next government's composition, Netanyahu and Lapid are reportedly contending with interpersonal discord.
Tension between the two escalated after Lapid, a political rookie who in the past interviewed Netanyahu for Israel's Channel 2, recently said in a TV interview that he does not rule out joining the opposition and unseating Netanyahu within 18 months, voicing confidence that he would win if early elections were called.
Likud sources said that statement had laid doubt on Lapid's ability to become a trustworthy coalition partner.