Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night submitted to President Isaac Herzog a request to extend the mandate to form the government.
Netanyahu wrote Herzog that “all the factions demand signing full coalition agreements as a precondition for the distribution of portfolios, and these agreements include references to many and complex key issues.” He reassured the president that “negotiations are in full swing and much progress has been made, however, I will require all the days of extension that you have the power to give me according to the law so that I can form the government.”
Earlier this week, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar wrote the president that he should refuse Netanyahu’s request to extend the mandate. “Assembling the signatures of the parties in Netanyahu’s bloc to replace the Knesset Speaker indicates that the formation of the government has been completed,” he argued, suggesting that “Netanyahu’s request for additional days is a trick. His goal: to pass personal and questionable laws to suit the demand of his partners before the establishment of the government.”
“This is not the reason the President was given the authority by law to extend the deadline. The President should reject Netanyahu’s request,” Sa’ar wrote.
He was not wrong. Three of Netanyahu’s coalition partners require amending existing laws to facilitate their participation. Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri must have an amendment in the law that sets a difference between real jail time and probation when it comes to allowing a convicted criminal to serve as a government minister. Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich must receive the Knesset’s legal approval to his taking control over the civil government in Judea and Samaria, which used to be the absolute domain of the IDF and the defense minister. And Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben Gvir wants the Knesset to flip the relationship between the National Security Minister and the Chief of Police so that the minister decides the police agenda.
To get these major amendments in three different areas of the law, the future coalition must install a new Knesset Speaker, because the current one, Mikey Levy, is a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and wouldn’t dream of submitting these bills for the Knesset’s approval. Sa’ar’s argument is, if Netanyahu can replace the speaker, it means he already has a coalition, so why give him more time?
Here’s why: in late October, Israel’s media was delighted for a few days by a leaked recording of Smotrich who was referring to his battle against Netanyahu over including Ra’am Chairman Mansour Abbas in his coalition government. Netanyahu later denied trying to cajole the head of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Israel into entering a partnership with Likud, about which Smotrich was heard saying the former PM was “Liar and son of a liar,” and “Big trouble.” I pointed out at the time that never in his career was there a leaked secret recording of Smotrich that didn’t serve his political needs (Netanyahu Rebukes Smotrich: Stop Shooting Inside the Tent). Back in October, just before the elections, that “exposed” recording probably moved a mandate from Likud to Religious Zionism.
Smotrich apologized profusely for the recording, and Netanyahu forgave him graciously, but the point was made: Smotrich will never take Netanyahu’s word for anything. And the same is true for Ben Gvir, and especially Deri, who has known the Likud chairman the longest, going on four decades now. All three politicians like Netanyahu, even admire him for some of his brave actions, they just don’t trust him.
In a normal relationship, all three men and their parties would have gladly launched a government together and then taken care of the legislation, big as it may be. Deri could appoint one of his deputies to warm his ministerial seat for him until the law clearing him for service was passed, and likewise, Smotrich and Ben Gvir would have expected to legally alter their job descriptions later on. But not with Bibi. With him, they not only want his commitments on paper, but they also want them signed and delivered by explicit Knesset legislation.
I’ve said it before: Netanyahu is like a three-card-monte trickster whose been working the same corner for too long. By now he’s not fooling anyone, especially not the people who stand the closest to his little foldup table and by now have learned to spot the Queen’s card wherever he lands it.