Spinning heads: Could Liberman really become PM under a rotation deal?

Spinning heads: Could Liberman really become PM under a rotation deal?

With no clear solution to an anticipated post-election coalition deadlock, the Yisrael Beytenu chief makes an audacious pitch to move from kingmaker to king

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Avigdor Liberman, center, visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Avigdor Liberman, center, visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

In the April election, the ruling Likud party and rival Blue and White won 35 seats apiece in the 120-seat Knesset but, without the support of Yisrael Beytenu’s leader, Avigdor Liberman, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud was unable to form a majority coalition and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White didn’t get the (implausible) chance to try.

Since then, polling has shown Liberman’s party jumping from the five seats it received in April to 11 or 12.

According to a Channel 13 poll released last week, the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties together would win 54 seats without Liberman, while the center-left and Arab factions would have 55, meaning, again, that neither side could form a coalition without Yisrael Beytenu. If so, the former defense and foreign minister would again hold the balance of power.

On Saturday however, Liberman pitched a move that would see him change from from kingmaker to king. Speaking at a cultural event in the central (and centrist) city of Modiin, Liberman said that if further deadlock ensues after the September 17 election redo, he would be interested in becoming premier himself and would not rule out the possibility of rotating the position with Netanyahu in a future coalition government.

“For me [the premiership] is just an option rather than an obsession,” Liberman said. “It interests me to be prime minister but I’m realistic and try to see the full picture. There must be enough seats — first, we have to win the elections, then we divide up [the roles].”

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaking at a parlor event in Ramat Gan, July 9, 2019. (Shachar Azran)

When pressed by his interviewer on the option of rotating the position should his party garner enough Knesset seats, Liberman said: “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m trying to stay realistic and to first bring in enough seats.”

While sources close to Liberman later walked back the possibility, saying in a statement that there was “no option” for rotation with Netanyahu and that the Yisrael Beytenu chief’s efforts were “focused on building a wide, national, liberal government,” the trial balloon had nonetheless been launched.

According to Professor Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College, the option of a prime minister Liberman is “so speculative that it’s not worth discussion of the consequences.”

But even if considering the proposal is taking his bait, adding fuel to his fire or just giving a platform to wild speculation, the fact that Liberman has raised the possibility at least warrants some basic scrutiny.

There is after all precedent for prime ministerial rotation, but according to Kenig, only in Israel, and only once before, under very different circumstances.

The president’s precedent

Following the 1984 election in which the (Labor) Alignment party won 44 seats and Likud won 41, there was a dead tie between the left- and right-wing bloc with each holding exactly 60 seats. “The solution that they came up with back then, led by President Chaim Herzog, was a unity government with a rotation procedure,” Kenig recalled.

According to the agreement, in the first half of the term, Alignment leader Shimon Peres served as prime minister and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir as his deputy; when the government completed half its term, they switched.

Flashback to the rotation era: Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (left) and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres enjoy each other’s company during a Mimouna celebration at Sacher Park in Jerusalem, March 15, 1988. (Nati Harnik / Government Press Office)

In recent years the idea of a rotation deal for prime minister has made a comeback: In the 2015 election, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni agreed to rotate the premiership should they win the election (although the deal was later scuppered); and, following that, before the April election, Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid agreed to a rotation deal by which if their Blue and White alliance won, Gantz would be premier for 2.5 years followed by Lapid for 1.5 years. That Gantz-Lapid deal still holds.

If no Likud- or Blue and White-led bloc succeeds in breaking the deadlock and forming a 61-seat majority on its own after September’s vote, President Reuven Rivlin could consider utilizing the same dramatic option as did his presidential predecessor Herzog: try to force a national unity government with a rotating premiership.

Can the president do that? Absolutely, according to Kenig. It is completely within the president’s constitutional purview to offer both Netanyahu and Gantz an ultimatum: agree to a national unity government, dividing the premiership via rotation, or see your opponent get the first chance at forging a coalition on his own.

In fact, “it’s the most realistic [scenario],” Kenig said, in contrast to the pessimistic outlook he gave for a rotation agreement involving Liberman.

Liberman’s bid

While the rotation precedent does exist, Liberman’s proposal would mean pushing it to new limits given that he is likely to receive far, far fewer seats than either the Likud party or Blue and White, as well as the fact that he himself could well be in a position to end the deadlock by simply joining a non-unity coalition government as a senior partner.

A strong showing of 10 to 15 seats could nonetheless give the Yisrael Beytenu chair an argument, although not necessarily a strong one, to take a chunk of the prime ministerial term himself. He could, for example, claim — albeit unprecedentedly — that were he to win more than half the number of seats the largest party in the potential coalition has (in a situation where Likud and Blue and White each win around 25 seats and he wins around 13), he is entitled to a commensurate proportion of the premiership term.

In Likud’s case, one scenario for a Netanyahu-led government would indeed be a a right-wing coalition that included Yisrael Beytenu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman at a joint press conference on May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman precipitated the September vote by refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition following the April elections when he clashed with ultra-Orthodox parties over legislation to regulate military service for ultra-Orthodox men. Now, rather than risk being left out of the coalition, the two ultra-Orthodox parties might agree to pass the bill to regulate the ultra-Orthodox military draft, and thus facilitate a coalition alongside Liberman.

But Liberman reiterated this week that he plans to force a national unity government with Likud and Blue and White, saying that there was “essentially no difference” between the two other factions and that he would, preempting Rivlin, recommend that the first leader to call for a unity government be tasked with forming a coalition.

Kenig stressed that again, while possible, the scenario of a Netanyahu-Liberman prime ministerial rotation is still unlikely. “I can’t see Liberman going into an agreement that would give Netanyahu the first two years and then counting on Netanyahu’s good will to resign after two years and make Liberman prime minster,” he said.

Leaders of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, left, and MK Yair Lapid, hold a press conference, in Tel Aviv, on March 31, 2019. (Flash90)

The issue gets even more convoluted and complicated, but perhaps better for Liberman, when dealing with a possible rotation deal with Blue and White. Gantz and Lapid’s rotation deal would mean that a separate agreement with Liberman could ultimately involve a three-way swap, whereby each serves as prime minister for a little over a year.

And what, then, of a three-way rotation deal for Liberman, Netanyahu and Gantz? Or even a four-man Liberman-Netanyahu-Gantz-Lapid rotating premiership? One’s head spins.

Maybe Kenig is right, for now, about the dubious value of speculating.

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