JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he would be prepared to cede leadership for a year to longtime right-wing rival Naftali Bennett in a last ditch effort to create a new government.
Netanyahu, who has spent the past 12 years in office and is currently on trial for corruption, announced the offer just ahead of the deadline to form a government, following Israel’s inconclusive fourth election in two years.
The arrangement, which is part of a rotation deal, would be highly unusual since Mr Bennett, who briefly served as defense minister in a previous government, heads a small pro-settlement party, Yamina, which holds just seven seats out of 120. -seat Parliament.
Mr Netanyahu wrote of the offer in a Facebook post less than 36 hours before his time to form a new government ran out at midnight Tuesday. Mr Bennett appeared to reject the offer as a political twist in his initial response.
The last election in March left Mr. Netanyahu weakened and, so far, unable to muster a coalition that would command a parliamentary majority.
Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party won the most seats of any party in the election, securing 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, but had been approved for the prime minister position by just 52 Likud lawmakers, two loyal ultra-Orthodox parties and far away – a just alliance called Religious Zionism.
Even with Mr. Bennett’s Yamina on board, Mr. Netanyahu would still have two seats short of the 61 needed to form a majority government.
Still, the support of Mr. Bennett’s party could be essential, and he has negotiated both with the Netanyahu-led bloc and with an opposition bloc made up of parties from all walks of life who are determined to overthrow Mr. Netanyahu. This group also did not have an easy path to power.
Mr Netanyahu said Mr Bennett had asked to serve for a year in a rotating prime ministerial post while negotiating with the two sides, playing against each other.
“This is not exactly a routine request from the person leading a party with seven seats,” Netanyahu said of Mr. Bennett’s stipulation. “But the consideration that guides me is what is at stake now – the good of the country: a right-wing government, not a left-wing government.” Mr. Bennett subsequently denied making the request.
If Mr. Bennett accepted Mr. Netanyahu’s offer, it is unclear how much power Mr. Bennett would actually wield given the imbalance between their respective parties.
Mr Bennett said he would prefer to sit in a cohesive right-wing government, but noted that he was waiting for Mr Netanyahu to show he had a majority. His immediate response to Mr. Netanyahu’s offer was dismissive.
“I just heard Netanyahu’s proposal, and I have to say it’s not clear to me,” Bennett said. “I did not ask for the post of prime minister from Netanyahu, but rather asked for a government. And that, to my great regret, he does not have it.
To form a government, Mr. Netanyahu needs the direct or passive support of Raam, a small Islamist party whose Hebrew acronym stands for United Arab List, which holds four seats in parliament. But most supporters of religious Zionism have so far ruled out relying on support from the Arab party, which they say supports terrorism.
Mr. Netanyahu’s only other option is to attract deserters from the opposition bloc. Mr. Netanyahu said if Mr. Bennett and his Yamina party join forces to form a strong 59-seat bloc, more will come.
The latest power-sharing proposal could offer Israel a way out of its prolonged political stalemate. But even with Mr. Netanyahu in the background, it could highlight the cracks in his carefully curated image of indispensable.
Mr Netanyahu has presented himself as the only candidate sufficiently qualified and experienced to secure Israel’s future in an unstable region, as the Biden administration continues negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with the Iran despite Israeli objections.
But questions of confidence and stability would weigh on any new government with Mr Bennett at least nominally at the helm, after a similar deal lasted only a few months.
Mr. Netanyahu’s last government was also based on a rotation agreement with his main coalition partner, Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party. The two joined forces in a unity government following the draw in elections last year.
Mr. Netanyahu first served as prime minister, with the agreement that Mr. Gantz would take over in November 2021. But after just seven months, Mr. Netanyahu created a budget crisis that led to new elections. , before Mr. Gantz could get close to running the government.
What many Israelis are now hoping for is an end to the stalemate that has crippled the government for years. The political quagmire has left Israel without a state budget for two consecutive years amid a pandemic and delayed appointments to several key administrative and judicial positions.
Aside from the country’s usual tensions between secular and religious, right and left, and Jewish and Arab, the main division had increasingly focused on Mr. Netanyahu himself. Even the ideological right has been divided between pro and anti-Netanyahu camps, in large part because of the leader’s aptitude to serve as prime minister amid his legal woes.
Mr. Netanyahu is expected to appear in court regularly now that the proof phase of his trial for corruption, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies, has begun.