Likud mulls a ‘Putin plan’ to keep Netanyahu in charge

To entice Sa’ar into the government, Netanyahu is considering handing the premiership briefly to Bennett or a Likud loyalist, while remaining in the PM’s official residence

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, right, attend a military parade celebrating 73 years since the victory in WWII, in Red Square, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, right, attend a military parade celebrating 73 years since the victory in WWII, in Red Square, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP)

The so-called “change bloc” has reached an advanced stage of negotiations to form a “national unity government” straddling left, right and center.

The formula is taking shape. Yamina chair Naftali Bennett acknowledged in a Facebook post on Friday that the government under consideration won’t advance reforms of the legal system or sovereignty over the West Bank, both issues he has championed in the past. Everyone will get something, but no one will get everything they want.

Based on the state of the talks at the moment, Naftali Bennett would serve as prime minister for the first two years, Yair Lapid as alternate prime minister and foreign minister, Gideon Sa’ar as justice minister, Benny Gantz as defense minister, and Avigdor Liberman as finance minister, and the remaining senior posts — education, interior, public security, health, and infrastructures — would be parceled out by Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz.

At 58 seats, this new government wouldn’t have a majority in the 120-member Knesset. It would have to rely on outside support from the Arab-majority parties Ra’am and the Joint List, and possibly also United Torah Judaism in exchange for leaving its chairman, MK Moshe Gafni, as head of the Knesset Finance Committee.

Though things seem to be falling into place for the new coalition, however, it’s far too early for the prospective new ministers to celebrate. For a start, leaders of the “change bloc” have not actually been tasked with forming a government. The mandate to do so, for now, belongs to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at the Channel 12 “Influencers Conference” in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The remaining nine days of Netanyahu’s mandate from the president are extremely delicate for the tentative and ideologically disparate coalition that seeks to replace him. Netanyahu is famed for his political guile and will do his utmost to prevent the formation of a coalition that ends his current 12-year consecutive run as prime minister. Meanwhile, some in the “change bloc” — the parties opposed to the prime minister — believe the only reason Bennett is speaking to them is to improve his negotiating position with Netanyahu.

Two senior MKs from the change bloc parties told The Times of Israel on Saturday that despite the initial agreements, they don’t see how the alternative government will be formed, and don’t believe the attempt will bear fruit. That widespread skepticism has drawn attention to other options under consideration in Netanyahu’s camp.

Bennett’s year in power

Netanyahu’s key problem in quickly nailing down the religious-right government  he wants is Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which vowed during the campaign never to serve under Netanyahu and has so far held to that commitment despite intense pressure from the right.

And so a search is on among Netanyahu’s supporters for ways to temporarily move Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s chair in a bid to entice Sa’ar to join the coalition.

One option: Netanyahu hands Bennett the premiership for a year. This simultaneously prevents a Bennett-Lapid government and allows Sa’ar to join a right-wing coalition with a majority of 65 MKs.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That option worries the center-left. When Netanyahu’s 28-day mandate expires, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid won’t recommend Bennett to the president as Israel’s next prime minister because he fears Bennett could then use the mandate to turn away from the center-left and make a rotation deal with Netanyahu.

But the party most opposed to the Bennett-as-premier-for-a-year idea is Likud itself, whose leaders are outspoken in their opposition to the notion that a seven-seat party like Yamina should get to lead a government in which 30-seat Likud must play second fiddle.

It’s also not clear what would happen to such a government when Netanyahu reclaims the prime minister’s chair after the first year. Would Sa’ar’s party leave the coalition, toppling the government and forcing new elections?

Another point of concern: Netanyahu would do his utmost during Bennett’s term to make clear that it is temporary and insignificant. For example, Likud negotiators have already raised in talks with Yamina the demand that Netanyahu remain in the official prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem during Bennett’s premiership.

Last week, Likud mocked Bennett for being blinded by his “lust for power” and Netanyahu derisively offered to let Bennett stay at the Balfour residence for a weekend. But it’s Netanyahu himself who has shown he views residing in that house as a signal that he remains in charge. Staying in the official home even after leaving the premiership would allow Netanyahu to convey the unmistakable message that he remains the true leader of the Israeli right each time he meets a world leader, cabinet minister or party activist.

The Medvedev option

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) holds a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 10, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The many problems with the Bennett-first option have given birth to another proposal to convince Sa’ar to join a right-wing coalition with Likud, a proposal that negotiators have taken to calling the “Medvedev solution,” but which could just as easily have been termed the “Putin plan.”

Dmitry Medvedev served as president of Russia for a single term, from 2008 to 2012, after two consecutive terms by Vladimir Putin. Putin served as prime minister during Medvedev’s presidency, then promptly returned to his former post and appointed Medvedev as prime minister.

Observers have generally viewed Medvedev’s short period as Putin’s putative boss as a public relations trick. Medvedev was and remained a Putin loyalist, and provided the longtime Russian leader a workaround to the presidential term limits in force at the time.

That’s more or less what the “Medvedev solution” would mean in Likud, say party sources. Netanyahu would be replaced as premier by a different Likud lawmaker, allowing Sa’ar to join the government, but Netanyahu would retain his influence in the party and the government.

Sources involved in the negotiations have confirmed that under the “Medvedev solution,” Netanyahu would remain in the official residence and would take steps to ensure he retains his influence over the temporary new premier and party leader.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) addresses the Knesset plenum as Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin looks on, October 19, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Netanyahu is reported by multiple media outlets to want a loyalist Likud MK such as Yariv Levin or Yuval Steinitz to take the prime minister’s job in his temporary stead, ensuring the person who replaces him isn’t popular enough or ambitious enough to try to use the term as a platform for challenging Netanyahu’s leadership down the road.

Levin, who is currently the Knesset speaker, rejected the idea over the weekend, with sources saying he was insulted by the offer. Steinitz has yet to comment.

But the proposal has met with vehement opposition within Likud.

A senior Likud official told The Times of Israel last week that he won’t cooperate with any rotation proposal unless or until it has formal party approval. The party’s internal constitution stipulates that such a proposal must be brought to a vote either in the party’s 3,800-member Central Committee or its 100,000-plus membership.

The resistance in Likud is being driven by top-ranked lawmakers who see themselves as potential heirs to Netanyahu’s leadership once he steps down. They are unhappy with the idea that Netanyahu may try to parachute in a mid-tier Likud loyalist over their heads to serve as a puppet prime minister.

Likud MK Nir Barkat (center) takes a selfie with supporters during a campaign stop at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda on March 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For the moment, Netanyahu is resisting calling such a vote, and is instead seeking emergency powers to advance a rotation arrangement as needed. If a formal vote were to be held, the party’s big guns — the likes of Yuli Edelstein, Israel Katz, Nir Barkat and Miri Regev, among others — would likely compete to be Netanyahu’s temporary replacement.

Former Jerusalem mayor Barkat, who has emerged in numerous polls in recent weeks as the frontrunner to replace Netanyahu, might be positioned to win such a race.

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