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Rotations and improbable alliances swirl as Netanyahu works to stay in power

TV reports of multiple offers made — and denied — as PM tries to garner support of his rival and somehow get the far-right and Islamists on the same page

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of right-wing parties, on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of right-wing parties, on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lacking a clear path to forming a government, Likud leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently delving deep into his bag of political tricks, with Israeli television on Friday reporting multiple seemingly implausible proposals for the incumbent premier to maintain power.

Netanyahu was formally tasked this week with forming a new government following the March 23 elections, which failed to produce a clear winner. The Likud chief was endorsed by 52 lawmakers, the most of any Knesset member but short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

To reach a majority, Netanyahu needs the support of Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, who he met with Thursday. However, even with Yamina’s seven seats, Netanyahu would still be two seats shy of a majority.

To get over the hump, some Likud lawmakers and other figures in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc have entertained a government propped up by the Islamist Ra’am party, which with its four seats emerged from the elections as a potential kingmaker. However, Netanyahu’s allies in the far-right Religious Zionism party have rejected such a prospect.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 4, 2021. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

According to Channel 12 news, Bennett has agreed to rotate the premiership with Netanyahu in a government backed by Ra’am, but only if the Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich is on board. The network, which did not cite a source, said however that Likud sources were denying Yamina’s assertion that Netanyahu made Bennett such an offer.

The channel said another proposal being bandied about was to get Bennett and Ra’am to vote in favor of a Netanyahu-led government that would then be swiftly dissolved, leading to new elections. The aim of such a vote would be to boot Blue and White ministers from the current transition government and prevent Defense Minister Benny Gantz from becoming prime minister in November — as agreed last year under his power-sharing deal with Netanyahu — if no new coalition is formed by then.

It also claimed that despite all the machinations, Netanyahu believes that Bennett is only going through the motions with him and has already decided to join forces with opposition chief Yair Lapid.

Another proposal cited in the Channel 12 report would see Netanyahu step down as premier and take the position of alternate prime minister, but remain in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem while Bennett or someone else in Likud becomes premier. The network gave no further details on the proposal and it was unclear how the arrangement would work or if it was legally permitted.

The position of alternate prime minister was created to facilitate the coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz that imploded last year.

Separately, Channel 13 news said Bennett told Netanyahu that he was okay with the Likud leader serving first as premier for a year, after which he would take over as prime minister for two years, before handing the reins back to Netanyahu for a final year.

The network, which similarly did not cite any sources, said Bennett also told Netanyahu that he will take up Lapid’s offer to be first in a rotation deal if the Likud chief fails to form a government.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The television reports came after Smotrich expressed optimism that the prime minister’s right-wing rivals will drop their opposition to joining a government headed by Netanyahu, while reiterating he opposes a coalition backed by Ra’am, who he referred to as “terror supporters and terrorists.”

Smotrich also met with Netanyahu on Friday, after which he issued a statement saying the two agreed “every effort should be made to convince Bennett not to break up the national camp and go to a left-wing government.” Smotrich was a top lawmaker in Yamina but split off from Bennett before the elections.

Smotrich’s swipe at Bennett was swiftly rejected by Likud, which campaigned against Bennett but now needs his party’s support.

“The statement by Bezalel Smotrich doesn’t match reality,” Netanyahu’s party said.

If Netanyahu does not succeed in forming a government within 28 days, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has intimated he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election, the fifth in under three years.

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