Despite Deep Loathing, These Israeli Leaders Were the Only Ones to Form a Rotation Government

With speculations of a national unity government after September 17, a look back at Shamir and Peres, who established one in 1984 after failing to gain Knesset majority

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Shimon Peres (L) and Yitzhak Shamir signing a rotation agreement, 1984.
Shimon Peres (L) and Yitzhak Shamir signing a rotation agreement, 1984. Credit: GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The term rotation government comes up every time Israel holds one of its many elections, but Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir were the only ones who managed to form such a government, which served its full term.

In 2014, then-Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog and then-Hatnuah party leader Tzipi Livni agreed to run on a joint center-left ticket ahead of the 2015 election, as did Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid before the April 9 vote and recently the possibility of a rotation agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman or between Netanyahu and Gantz has been brought up.

But the first and last time Israel had a national unity government where the top seat rotated between two prime ministers was in 1984. Likud and Labor allied and their leaders Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres took turns in running the country. How that did happen and how is it different from the situation today?

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In the 1984 election for the 11th Knesset, the Alignment (or Maarach in Hebrew) — a joint slate of Labor and Mapam, which was one of left-wing Meretz’s precursor parties — received 44 Knesset seats, while Likud received only 41.

Both Likud and Alignment went to great lengths to prevent each other from forming a government by wooing the small parties. The efforts resulted in a tie: each party could form a 60-seat bloc but neither could achieve a majority. Then-President Chaim Herzog urged Shamir and Peres to create precedent by teaming up and forming a national unity goverment, during which each one of them would serve as prime minister for two years, and so a new form of government was created in Israel.

Peres took the helm during the first two years while Shamir served as foreign minister and also acting prime minister (a title created just for him).

The coalition agreement stated that in order to swap roles, Peres would resign toward the end of the government's first 25 months. Then Alignment and Likud would jointly recommend that the president task Shamir with forming the new government, with Shamir committing to build a coalition as set forth in the agreement.

In his speech announcing the establishment of a government, Peres told the Knesset, "This is a government born on riven land, formed not based on any precedent and completed by delicate work of overcoming difficulties.

"The government embarks on its way with the nation's hope that people with opposing views will grow closer, and that common elements will be used to better serve the people in handling urgent challenges in multiple and diverse areas," Peres said.

"This is a government that will have to rely on good will no less than the power of the majority," Peres continued. "This is a government that will have to prove that governance means persuasion. The mere fact that the two big political camps in Israel decided to combine forces to drive the nation forward has created hope in Israel, and esteem outside of it," Peres said.

According to the agreement, Shamir would be privy to all intelligence material shown to Peres during his tenure as prime minister.

"Sacks of material would come every day from the Military Intelligence (Amman), Shin Bet security services and Mossad to Shamir's office at the Foreign Ministry," recalled Shamir's adviser at the time, Aryeh Mekel, five years ago.

Nevertheless, the two leaders were treated very differently. "Peres had a military secretary with the rank of brigadier general, his deputy and a cadre of soldiers to sort through the intelligence materials, while Shamir had no such team. The sheer load of sorting through the documents, including the deciding what Shamir should see, rested on the shoulders of a small office that included Yossi Ben-Aharon and me," Mekel added.

Shamir also received daily briefings from the prime minister's military secretary and counter-terrorism adviser, and Shamir and Peres would meet at least once a week. In October 1986, Peres upheld the rotation agreement and Shamir moved to the prime minister's office.

"Shamir's greatest fear was that Peres would bring down the government and thwart the rotation agreement," Mekel says. "When Peres meticulously honored the agreement, Shamir was almost surprised."

However, there were some bumps in the road. Shamir told his aides to see what materials Peres' staff had left for him, and a search in the office computers found no documentation of Shamir's extensive diplomatic activity. Senior Likud officials were furious.

In 1987, Peres and Shamir fell out. Peres flew to London to talk with Jordanian King Hussein and returned with an agreement to convene an international peace conference. Shamir decided to foil the agreement because of the way it was reached. But the crisis didn't topple the government, which became one of the few Israeli governments to serve its full term.

The two leaders proved they could overcome their mutual suspicion, loathing and ideological differences. Their government marked achievements, including the Israeli army's retreat to the security zone in southern Lebanon (preceding Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000), halting runaway inflation, and contending with the outbreak of the first intifada. Various ministers, including then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, were not replaced after the rotation.

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