The rise and fall of the 61-MK story

The Hebrew press treated the story with screaming headlines and serious coverage as if a political revolution were about to break out. Politicians, pundits, legal authorities and other talking heads kept the story going on television and radio shows. But the MKs allegedly behind the effort to draft 61 MKs to replace Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu admitted on Sunday that the story "never really existed to begin with." According to the reports, Likud MKs Michael Ratzon and Yuval Steinitz gathered signatures at Netanyahu's behest to present to President Moshe Katsav. The MKs talked to Shinui about the possibility of Netanyahu using a 21-day period after Katsav disperses the Knesset on Thursday to form a new government that could last until November 2006. Shinui and religious parties would support the government without joining the coalition. Here are the facts: Ratzon and Steinitz never thought such a move had a chance and never took any real steps to advance it. They never talked to each other about the idea and neither discussed it with Netanyahu. "There never was such an initiative," Steinitz said. "It was just a few conversations in the hallway. Bibi didn't even know about it. I didn't even know I was working together with Ratzon until I read about it in the papers." Steinitz said he thought of the idea because he was trying to help stop Sharon's Kadima party from gathering momentum at the expense of the floundering Likud. "Sharon is always doing tricks, so we had to defend ourselves and give him a dose of his own medicine," Steinitz said. In reality, there was never a chance of drafting 61 MKs to support forming a new government. Shinui would only support it if a bill were passed to permit civil marriage, something there is no majority for in the Knesset. Religious parties would not support such a coalition, and even many Likud MKs would not take steps to help Netanyahu. Shinui leader Yosef Lapid said that "there wasn't an agreement. I just said that if we could get civil marriage, I'd consider it." Shas's Eli Yishai declared that "Shas and Shinui have no alliance and certainly no partnership." NRP faction chairman Shaul Yahalom said, "We are willing to consider anything to thwart Sharon, but not if it means harming the Jewish character of the state." But the "initiative" proved useful to a range of public figures. Ratzon and Steinitz used it to find favor with Netanyahu and the Likud central committee, Shinui leader MK Yosef Lapid showed his voters that he is still trying to help the secular, Yishai got airtime to bash Lapid, and Netanyahu was painted in the press as a potential prime minister. Ratzon, who first floated the story to Israel Radio in August, said it could resurface again after the Likud's December 19 primary if Netanyahu wins. "Maybe then the story will be real," he said.