Netanyahu slams term limit bill as ‘Iranian’; Sa’ar: He once agreed to pass it

Opposition leader rails against proposal to limit premier’s tenure to 8 years; Justice minister: Netanyahu begged me to join his coalition in return for introducing the same law

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar (right). (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar (right). (Flash90)

Opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday slammed legislation that would limit a prime minister to serving not more than eight years in office. The bill’s author, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, responded by saying the Likud party leader in recent years had begged Sa’ar to join a Netanyahu-led coalition in exchange for passing the exact same law.

On Sunday, ministers backed a bill setting term limits for the position of prime minister, barring a premier from serving for more than eight years. The proposal must now clear three Knesset plenum readings before becoming law.

“The current government is dropping in the polls, and the opposition is rising in the polls,” claimed Netanyahu at a meeting of his Likud faction in the Knesset. “So what do they do? They’re trying to pass an Iranian law that will create a situation whereby someone can win an election — but not oust them.”

The proposed bill does not apply retroactively, and therefore would not prevent Netanyahu from running again for office. Cumulatively, Netanyahu was prime minister for 15 years, 12 of them consecutively since 2009.

This kind of law “does not exist in any parliamentary democracy,” added Netanyahu. “In a democracy, the public decides who leads, and not some arbitrary law.”

The proposed amendment to Israel’s semi-constitutional Basic Laws, put forward by Sa’ar, would force a prime minister to step down after eight consecutive years in power, requiring the formation of a new government, though not necessarily new elections.

An additional clause was also approved Sunday as part of the bill, barring a person from being premier even if they have served two non-consecutive terms as prime minister, if no more than three years separate the tenures. If the gap between the tenures is more than three years, the eight-year counter is reset, according to the proposed bill.

New Hope party leader and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at the Knesset on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Speaking at his own New Hope faction meeting, Sa’ar mocked Netanyahu for his opposition to the measure, claiming that before the current government was formed, the Likud leader beseeched him to join his governing coalition and offered to pass a law implementing term limits on the prime minister.

Several months ago, Netanyahu “begged me to establish a government together, and promised that I would serve first in a rotation deal,” Sa’ar said, shedding more light on Netanyahu’s reported offers of the premiership position to others following March’s election, as the Likud leader tried but failed to muster a coalition.

The justice minister added that, at the time, Netanyahu promised — of his own initiative — to support a bill that would limit the term of a prime minister.

“He even agreed to legislate it in a retroactive manner,” said Sa’ar, suggesting that Netanyahu could have backed some sort of agreement to limit his own premiership in the future, though he did not explain how Netanyahu could become premier under a rotation deal in such a case.

Likud MK Yariv Levin has previously claimed that Netanyahu offered Sa’ar the premiership in return for his backing. But Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who broke away from the party to help oust Netanyahu from power, ultimately rejected the proposal, according to Levin.

Writing on Facebook following Sunday’s ministerial vote, Sa’ar said: “Term limits (instead of an unlimited term) are an important principle at the foundation of the perception that the government works for the wellbeing of the citizens rather than for itself and its survival.”

In this August 26, 2012 photo, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks to then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar as they arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai/Getty Images, Pool, File)

Setting term limits with the aim of curtailing Netanyahu’s political career was a key element in negotiations to form the current coalition government.

Sa’ar insists that the bill is not aimed personally at Netanyahu, though he is also working on legislation that would rule out as a potential premier anyone indicted for a crime that comes with a minimum three-year sentence and moral turpitude. Earlier on Sunday, ahead of the ministerial vote, Sa’ar said he was working to persuade Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to support such legislation.

Such a law would apply to Netanyahu and would keep him out of the prime minister’s seat, as he is currently on trial in three corruption cases. That proposal was said to be backed by the Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu parties, along with Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

The proposed law, if approved, would take effect after the next elections, when a new Knesset is sworn in.

A separate bill limiting the terms of mayors would also be advanced later, Sa’ar said last week. It too would limit them to two terms, but allow a third term if they receive more than 50% of the vote.

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