On Sunday, an hour and a half before the decisive Yamina party meeting at which it was decided to move toward a so-called government of change, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disseminated a document to reporters. In it he outlined a proposal for a three-way Sa’ar-Netanyahu-Bennett rotation for the premiership. The heads of the parties from the “Netanyahu bloc” had all signed off on it already.
While there is no international precedent for more than two people splitting the leadership of a country, Netanyahu chose to put forward the idea as a last-ditch effort. New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar rejected it immediately, which surprised no one, and the whole incident ended up just delaying the Yamina meeting a bit.
A three-way rotation isn’t the first idea Netanyahu has come up with over the past few months in an effort to preserve his rule. Immediately upon learning the results of the election in March, for example, the prime minister called on Sa’ar to return to the right-wing bloc.
“I will not invalidate anyone, and I expect those who believe in these principles to act similarly toward us, because of the demands of the hour,” Netanyahu said on election night, adding a few days later, “I’m calling here to Gideon Sa’ar: Likud is your home. You’ll be welcomed here with open arms.”
But it didn’t take long for Netanyahu to realize that Sa’ar had no intention of breaking his promise not to sit in a government with him. Meanwhile, senior Likud officials started to talk about “two deserters” who had been found among the ranks of New Hope or Kahol Lavan. To this day, these deserters have yet to present themselves, as Ayelet Shaked told her fellow Yamina lawmakers during their decisive meeting on Sunday.
After Netanyahu’s efforts to recruit 61 MKs failed earlier this month, he came up with a new idea: direct election of the prime minister. About two weeks before his deadline for forming a government expired, he announced: “There is a solution to the political conundrum: Instead of forming absurd governments – for example, with a prime minister who received only seven [Knesset] seats in the election – there will be direct elections for prime minister. The public will choose the prime minister directly in a snap election, without dissolving the Knesset.”
It was Interior Minister Aryeh Deri who promoted the direct-election initiative, knowing that the chance of it ever being realized was nil. Meanwhile, in an attempt to pressure Naftali Bennett to agree to the move, Netanyahu claimed that the Yamina leader was blocking it “only because of a personal ambition to be prime minister with seven seats.”
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After the direct election campaign also failed, and just one day before the deadline of his mandate, the premier sent an urgent message to Bennett on his Facebook page, in which he offered him a rotation for prime minister.
“To prevent a left-wing government, I told Naftali Bennett that I would be willing to comply with his request for a rotation arrangement in which he would serve first as prime minister for one year. Yamina members will be integrated into important positions in the cabinet and the Knesset. And if, God forbid, we do not form a government, we will run on a combined list for the Knesset,” the statement said. This was the first time Netanyahu had officially raised the rotation proposal – and thus Yamina sources claimed they couldn’t take it seriously.
After Bennett refused to pledge that he would not to sit in a government with Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, Likud, together with the other right-wing bloc parties, asked President Reuven Rivlin for the mandate to form the government to be passed on to the Knesset itself, even though the law does not allow parties to make such a recommendation. Thus, the mandate was given to Lapid.
Netanyahu still didn’t give up and continued to claim that if Bennett would commit to not joining Lapid, the missing "deserters" would be found. “When we form a solid bloc of 59 seats, there are several right-wing MKs who, despite their denials, will join us,” he declared. But when Bennett took the idea of a non-Netanyahu government off the table during the recent round of fighting in the Gaza Strip – Netanyahu walked back most of the agreements that he himself had initiated during the preceding weeks. He reduced the number of roles he reserved for Yamina and retracted the offer of rotation of the premiership.
In response, Bennett did a U-turn and renewed talks with Lapid.
Thus it happened that we got Netanyahu’s latest offer – of a three-way rotation.
As Prof. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute told Haaretz, “Not only is a three-way rotation an unprecedented mechanism, even a regular rotation is rare. Until recently Israel was the only country that had ever attempted to use such a mechanism, back in the 1980s.”
Meanwhile, the premier's last-gasp proposal has become irrelevant, and Lapid has three days remaining to cobble a coalition together.