Netanyahu Offers Rival a Year in Office, in Last-Minute Bid for Government

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Monday that he would be willing to hand over leadership for one year to a longtime right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, in a last-ditch effort to cobble together a new government.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has spent the last 12 years in office and is now standing trial on corruption charges, announced the offer just ahead of a deadline to form a government, in the wake of Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in two years.

The arrangement, part of a rotation agreement, would be a highly unusual one since Mr. Bennett, who served briefly as defense minister in a previous government, leads a small, pro-settlement party, Yamina, that holds just seven seats in the 120-seat Parliament.

Mr. Netanyahu wrote about the offer in a post on Facebook less than 36 hours before his time to form a new government runs out at midnight on Tuesday. Mr. Bennett appeared to dismiss the offer as political spin in his initial response.

The last election in March has 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 endorsed for the premiership by only 52 lawmakers from Likud, two loyal ultra-Orthodox parties and a far-right alliance called Religious Zionism.

Even with Mr. Bennett’s Yamina on board, Mr. Netanyahu would still be two seats short of the 61 needed to form a majority government.

Still, the support of Mr. Bennett’s party could be key, and he has been negotiating both with the Netanyahu-led bloc and with an opposition bloc made up of parties from across the spectrum that are determined to unseat Mr. Netanyahu. That group also had no easy path to power.

Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Bennett had demanded to serve for one year in a rotating premiership while negotiating with both sides, playing each against the other.

“It’s not exactly a routine demand from the person who heads a party with seven seats,” Mr. 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 and not a left-wing government.” Mr. Bennett subsequently denied having made the demand.

If Mr. Bennett were to take up Mr. Netanyahu’s offer, it is unclear how much power Mr. Bennett would actually wield given the imbalance between their respective parties.

Mr. Bennett has said he would prefer to sit in a coherent 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 have just heard Netanyahu’s proposal, and I have to say it is unclear to me,” Mr. Bennett said. “I did not demand the premiership from Netanyahu, but rather I asked for a government. And that, to my regret, he does not have.”

In order to form a government, Mr. Netanyahu needs the direct or passive support of Raam, a small Islamist party whose Hebrew acronym stands for the United Arab List, which holds four seats in Parliament. But most of the Religious Zionism party has so far ruled out relying on the support of the Arab party, which they say supports terrorism.

Mr. Netanyahu’s only other option is to attract defectors from the opposition bloc. Mr. Netanyahu said that if Mr. Bennett and his Yamina party joined forces to form a solid bloc of 59 seats, others would come.

The latest power-sharing proposal could offer Israel a way out of its prolonged political deadlock. But even with Mr. Netanyahu in the background, it could highlight the cracks in his carefully curated image of indispensability.

Mr. Netanyahu has presented himself as the only candidate qualified and experienced enough to secure Israel’s future in a volatile region, at a time when the Biden administration is pursuing negotiations aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran despite Israeli objections.

But questions of trust and stability would hang over any new government with Mr. Bennett at least nominally at the helm, after a similar agreement lasted just 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 after last year’s election draw.

Mr. Netanyahu held the office of prime minister first, with the agreement that Mr. Gantz would take over in November 2021. But after only seven months, Mr. Netanyahu created a budget crisis that led to new elections, before Mr. Gantz could get close to heading the government.

What many Israelis are hoping for now is an end to the gridlock that paralyzed the government for years. The political morass left Israel without a state budget for two consecutive years in the middle of a pandemic and has delayed appointments to several key administrative and judicial posts.

Aside from the country’s usual tensions between secular and religious, right-wing and left-wing, and Jewish and Arab, the main division had increasingly focused on Mr. Netanyahu himself. Even the ideological right has been split between pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, largely over the leader’s fitness for the office of prime minister amid his legal troubles.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected to appear in court regularly now that the evidentiary stage of his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies, has begun.

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