The Onus Is on Bibi

The proposal to establish a unity government with Tzipi Livni came, surprisingly enough, from Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

The Roman Republic was at the height of its glory when it was ruled, by mutual consent, by two consuls with equal status. But that was a few hundred years before the Common Era. The closest analogy to this method of government in Israel was the rotation government established by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. Despite being political rivals, they were able to forge a partnership in running the rotation government. Together, they succeeded in reducing inflation from hundreds of percent to double digits and put an end to the first Lebanon war.

How did a leftist and an advocate of Greater Israel manage to work so closely together? First, because the results of the election did not enable either of them to establish a stable government, at a time when the state was in crisis. Second, because the language of politics is sufficiently rich to enable coalition guidelines to be drafted. And third, because the term "rotation" did not mean dividing power, but dividing the title. In practice, Peres and Shamir were full partners on every issue.

The proposal to establish a unity government with Tzipi Livni came, surprisingly enough, from Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. We do not know whether it is merely an alibi, or whether it stemmed from fear of finding himself in a narrow, extremist right-wing government, but he is the one who picked up the phone first.

A dinner with their spouses that lasted into the wee hours of the morning was followed by another conversation, and then additional conversations by representatives of the two principals. Livni's associates urged her to agree to a rotation government.

At first, Bibi did not want to hear about it - perhaps because the rotation agreement between Peres and Shamir was actually honored: Shamir replaced Peres as prime minister during the second two years of their term, and Peres became deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Bibi does not see himself vacating his post for Livni.

But above all, Bibi is unwilling to accept the fact that he did not really win. That one-seat gap made him dependent on the whims of every passing politician.

Yet when ill winds are blowing against Israel from Europe, and former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton says the Obama administration will see Israel as a burden, an extreme right-wing government is the last thing Israel needs.

A broad unity government seems like the best answer at the moment. Otherwise, with his own party having only 27 seats, the prime minister is vulnerable to extortion. So if the reports that Bibi is the one who proposed the alliance with Kadima are true, perhaps the refrain of the "comeback kids" (he and Ehud Barak) that they have "changed" is at least true of one of them.

But as always, the devil is in the details. When he offered Livni a partnership, he may have thought she would jump at it, even though the idea of rotation never crossed his lips. But Livni is a female "tough guy." She told him, according to one of her friends, that together we have 55 seats, and this creates a situation in which the other coalition partners would lack the ability to bring down the government at any moment.

In an extreme right-wing government, Bibi would be constantly sweating from the pressure - as he did during his first term whenever he got in trouble. But Livni is essentially offering him partnership and stability for four and a half years.

The fact is the moment reports of a possible unity government began leaking out, Avigdor Lieberman softened his tone. He recognized the "two states for two peoples" formula, said he would be willing to evacuate settlements for peace and even said he would agree to leave his own house in Nokdim. Lieberman suddenly became closer to Livni than to Likud's Benny Begin or to his own No. 2, Uzi Landau. All of which proves that he would be willing to remain in a unity government.

Livni is not willing to concede the principle of rotation. "I don't blink so quickly," she said. She is willing to forge a partnership, but not on any terms. From the moment she was elected Kadima's chairwoman, and throughout her campaign to be prime minister, she vowed that even if she won the elections by a sweeping majority, she would strive to establish a unity government with Likud and Labor. But she will not join a unity government on any terms, and neither she nor Kadima has any intention of being a rubber stamp.

Livni is willing to enter a unity government with Bibi on the basis of joint management - "a true partnership in management, content and decision-making throughout the government's term," as she put it. "That is the principal meaning of rotation."

If Netanyahu's proposal is serious and not a mere trick, the burden of proof is on him: Tomorrow, he must ask the president for an extension to give him time to form a broad government.