Entrusting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the mandate to form the next government, President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday evening detailed to the public not only his extensive efforts to bring about a unity government between the premier’s Likud party and the rival Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, but also the specific proposal he had put to the two leaders.
Rivlin said that he had suggested to Gantz and Netanyahu a legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” that would grant the officeholder “full power” in the case the prime minister could not carry out his duties.
Such a change could theoretically allow Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he is formally charged in the trio of graft cases against him, enabling Gantz to avoid serving in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment. Netanyahu is facing a hearing next week with the attorney general, ahead of a decision on whether he will be indicted in the three cases against him.
In terms of how such a unity government might work, Rivlin said he had suggested a power sharing government arrangement, under which government authority would be equally distributed between the two rival parties — and he introduced a fairly unfamiliar word into the conversation.
“I offered both candidates the establishment of a paritetic government,” he said, using an adopted Hebrew legalese term, explaining, “That would mean a government of equals, in which neither bloc would have an advantage.”
While not claiming a spot in the contemporary English lexicon, the word “paritetic” has roots in Reformation Europe, deriving from the English word “parity” and originally used to describe a municipal power-sharing arrangement between Protestants and Catholics.
In the southern German town of Ravensberg, a “paritetic” government emerged in the 17th century in which there was an equal distribution of public offices between the Catholics and the Protestants. The city council was half Protestant and half Catholic and for a period there was even a Catholic and a Protestant mayor at the same time. The system of governance was eventually approved in the Peace of Westphalia treaties, which established a number of “paritetic” towns of joint Catholic and Protestant leadership across the region.
Revived in Israel
Having since faded from political parlance, the term was revived and became widely used in Israel to describe the power-sharing agreement in the country’s first non-war unity government, which emerged after the 1984 elections.
The agreement came about when the Labor party (then called the Alignment) led by Shimon Peres won 44 Knesset seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and the Yitzhak Shamir-led Likud won 41 seats, but neither gained a majority of recommendations, forcing the two to cobble together a national unity government in which they rotated the premiership.
According to Prof. Gideon Rahat of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, the arrangement was specifically needed because neither Labor nor Likud could form a coalition without the other, and therefore the government needed the constant support of both factions.
“The parity in terms of ministers between each party bloc meant that both sides had an automatic veto and were therefore forced to govern together,” Rahat said. “In previous and successive unity governments, there has always been one side with a majority. When there isn’t, an arrangement must be made to keep the sides equal and together.”
When Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition after Rivlin tapped him following April’s elections, Israelis were sent back to the polls. The September 17 elections saw Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White parties almost evenly matched again, and, this time, neither bloc with a viable path to a majority.
If 61 or more of the 120 MKs had recommended one candidate, Rivlin would almost certainly have entrusted that person with the task of building a coalition, as he did when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party backed Netanyahu in April. But with no one receiving 61 this time, like in 1984, there was no clear guideline for Rivlin to follow, and few legal limitations.
“He is basing the model on 1984 because that’s all we’ve got as a relevant example,” Rahat said.
In 1984, however, as well as an equal number of ministers, Peres and Shamir agreed to also share the premiership on a rotation basis whereby Peres served for two years followed by Shamir.
“This appears to be what Rivlin is proposing now, even though he didn’t specifically mention a rotation,” Rahat said.
There may be a reason for that, he added, because while the principles of a paritetic government may be palatable to both sides, “sharing the premiership is a whole other story, and one that will likely not be as easily accepted.”