On the morning of May 16, just one day after he returned from Japan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in his office with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. On the agenda: the spy scandal, Iran's nuclear program, diplomatic negotiations and a long list of other major security topics.
But the one thing on Netanyahu’s mind at that particular moment was something entirely different. He was focused on how to prevent Knesset member Reuven Rivlin, a member of his own Likud Party, from being elected president of Israel. Stopping Rivlin has become his “obsession.” He has been “running amok” about it over the past few days. And those are the terms used by senior members of the Likud and other top politicians who have spoken with Netanyahu about it.
It would be no exaggeration to say that in the last 10 days, Netanyahu — otherwise one of the world’s busiest leaders — has been mainly preoccupied with thwarting Rivlin’s bid to be elected president, since he sees it as the worst possible scenario. He focused on this throughout his entire trip to Japan, making endless urgent phone calls about it to the leaders of the other parties in his coalition.
Netanyahu’s original plan was to postpone the presidential elections by half a year. He wanted to use that time to find another candidate who would run for president on behalf of the Likud Party, and also to change the Basic Law regarding the election of the president. In effect, he wanted to eliminate the authority granted to the president to decide whom to charge with the task of composing the government, and to have that task automatically given to the head of the largest party.
The interpretation of such a move is that by changing the Basic Law, Netanyahu would thwart any attempt by Rivlin to get back at him if, by chance, he is elected president.
In his phone conversations with Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livvni and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu was able to persuade them to refrain from announcing their opposition to postponing the election. He was encouraged by the fact that they acceded to his request and did not express their opinions publicly on the matter. But the public and political pressure they faced in Israel for lending a hand to this egregious and unjustified deed tilted the balance to the other side and forced them to change their minds. They did not wait for the prime minister to return from Japan and announced on the evening of May 13 that they oppose this initiative, effectively burying the move.
But anyone who expected Netanyahu to lower his head and swallow his pride, given his resounding failure to bend a Basic Law to his own needs, has discovered that the prime minister has not lost an ounce of determination. Quite the contrary. He is more creative than ever.
Netanyahu is continuing with his efforts to find a candidate to his liking for the position of president. The problem is that as of May 16, these efforts have been futile. Former Ministers David Levy and Yaakov Neeman have no intention of getting anywhere near the dirty and unpredictable fight over the presidency, and it is doubtful that Netanyahu will be able to convince them to take the plunge into the sullied waters.
The question is, whether Netanyahu’s obsession is only the result of some desire to get back at the former Knesset speaker, because he was so unsupportive of Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister. Or maybe he is seeking vengeance against Rivlin for making jokes at Netanyahu’s wife Sara’s expense.
According to one claim, the animosity that the Netanyahus feel toward Rivlin can be traced back to a statement Rivlin once made along the lines of, “In my house, my wife doesn’t make the decisions.” This made him a pariah and a persona non grata as far as Netanyahu is concerned.
Over the past few days, however, there have been more and more signs that in addition to his desire to get back at Rivlin, Netanyahu is also motivated by a real fear that he will lose his position as prime minister after the next elections. This is because the president has the authority of appointing the head of the party with the best chance of putting a government together with the task of doing so.
According to a senior member of the Likud, Netanyahu has concluded that after the next elections, the political structure will be comprised of several mid-sized parties, none of which will have more than 20 seats. Netanyahu also believes that under his leadership, the Likud will remain the largest party in the Knesset. He simply wants to make sure that the next president appoints him to form a government as head of the largest party.
We have already noted that the law, as it stands, gives the president the role of choosing which of the party leaders has the best chance of forming a government. In 2009, Netanyahu, as head of the Likud, received a mandate to do that from President Shimon Peres. Livni’s Kadima Party may have had 28 seats, as compared to the Likud’s 27, but she was unable to cobble together the majority she needed to form a coalition. According to that same senior member of the Likud, “Bibi [Netanyahu] is scared that if a few parties band together and block him, they will be able to put together a government without him. So what does he do? He changes the Basic Law regarding the president of Israel.”
This assessment sits well with the way that Netanyahu tends to behave in the political arena. At any given moment he is busy warding off threats against his present government, but also against his future government. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he is simply readying himself for any potential blow. According to this same explanation, Lapid also realized this week that Netanyahu’s move was actually detrimental to him. Such a change to the law would prevent Lapid, Livni and Bennett — or others — from having the room to maneuver politically on the day after the next Knesset elections. Instead, they will be handed over to Netanyahu as early as now. That is why Lapid was so quick to distance himself from Netanyahu’s initiative to postpone the elections and change the Basic Law regarding the president of Israel. Publicly and in terms of his image, it was the right thing to do.
Once again, Netanyahu has proved that he does not know how to pick his battles. Not only did he fail to politically harm Rivlin, he may even have helped him. The media depicted Rivlin as someone who is being persecuted, all because Sara Netanyahu does not like him.
Will these incidents have an impact on the campaign? It is not at all certain that they will, and it is definitely too early to tell. The presidential election was, and remains, a black hole. This is a secret, personal election, limited to a small body consisting of the 120 Knesset members, with all that this implies. It is an occasion for petty rivalries, settling scores and sheer vengeance.
Rivlin’s people hope that the fact Netanyahu is taking action against him will actually help Rivlin by winning him the support of everyone in the Knesset who hates Netanyahu, and there are quite a few of them. For example, ultra-Orthodox Knesset members from the Yahadut HaTorah and Shas factions want to get back at Netanyahu for leaving them out of the coalition. They are Rivlin’s greatest hope, but even then, things are not so simple. Rivlin supported the effort to pass the “Sharing the Burden Law" for drafting the ultra-Orthodox to the army led by Lapid, so it is not clear how much they really want to support him.
On the other side is former Minister Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, who followed party discipline and opposed Lapid’s “Sharing the Burden Law.” He could also pay the price for that in the presidential elections, since the 19 Knesset members from Yesh Atid will avoid voting for him.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein will announce the date of the elections next week. Apparently, the vote will be held on either June 11 or June 17. Until then, Netanyahu plans to continue his efforts to find a candidate for president from among the ranks of the Likud and at the same time to change the Basic Law regarding the president of Israel.
Once the date of the elections is set, the dirtiest, most turbulent campaign for the presidency in Israel’s history will enter the final stretch. This is a campaign that tried to eliminate Ben-Eliezer by claiming that he spends his time in London's casinos. These allegations may have been refuted, but they have left a bad feeling behind. Ben-Eliezer has said that he knows private investigators have tried to get people close to his first wife to talk, all in an effort to find out how he treated her and through that, to raise a question mark over his behavior. He was even forced to contend with the claim that he received $25,000 a month from ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, when he served as defense minister, an allegation which has since also been disproven.
In the background of all this, Minister Silvan Shalom, who was otherwise considered to be a leading candidate, was forced to scuttle his plans to run over suspicions that he committed sex crimes. While the case against him has been closed, Shalom has not yet returned to the race.
This week also saw a defamatory new video clip about Rivlin being distributed to Knesset members, in which he is presented as a "macher" (Yiddish for wheeler-dealer), and there could even be more to come. Caught in the middle of all these accusations and slurs is none other than Netanyahu. Instead of calming everyone down and introducing a modicum of sanity to the system, he is just making it angrier and angrier. And in so doing, he is turning the entire presidential election system into a farce.