Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to back any presidential candidate unless he finds a dark horse from outside the political establishment. That, according to close associates who were speaking after it became clear that Silvan Shalom will not be entering the race.
“Before next Tuesday, the deadline for registration, some candidate or other could appear,” one source said, adding, “But at the moment Netanyahu doesn’t seem to have a candidate up his sleeve.”
Moreover, another source added, no outside candidate really has a chance at this late date: “Only a candidate from within the Knesset, who is acquainted with the Knesset members and has a strong-enough political base, could defeat the existing group [of candidates].”
MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) yesterday became the third official candidate, after MKs Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor).
The Knesset will vote on June 10 for the successor to President Shimon Peres.
Earlier yesterday, Netanyahu decided against backing Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom, who as a result decided not to contest the election. That led a number of Likud MKs, including Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev, to announce their support for Rivlin.
Netanyahu is firmly opposed to Rivlin’s candidacy. Aides to Netanyahu yesterday contacted cabinet ministers and MKs and urged them not to announce their support for Rivlin until Netanyahu made a final decision on his choice for the post.
One Netanyahu associate explained why he thought the prime minister would probably end up not giving his official support to any candidate. “Netanyahu understands it would be inappropriate for him to support any [other] candidate when a member of his party, Ruby Rivlin, is running,” the associate said, adding, “Their mutual hatred is strong, but Netanyahu understands that any public move he makes against Rivlin would hurt his own public image.”
Some Likud figures speculated yesterday that Netanyahu might allow coalition ally Yisrael Beiteinu to promote the candidacy of David Levy, a former foreign minister and Likud MK. But Levy’s chances of winning would be slim, they said.
“Two thirds of current MKs don’t know Levy at all and have never met him,” one said, adding that Rivlin, Ben-Eliezer and former MK Dalia Itzik (Kadima) have all “been holding personal meetings with MKs for months now, and many have already promised to vote for them. Levy has neither enough supporters nor enough time to campaign.”
Netanyahu’s decision not to support Shalom came as a complete surprise to the latter. Just a few days ago, the prime minister had been leaning toward giving Shalom at least tacit support, and yesterday morning, Shalom’s son, Nimrod Nir, even sent a letter to all MKs urging them to back his father.
But at noon yesterday, the daily Israel Hayom – which is considered close to Netanyahu – reported on its website that the premier had decided against backing Shalom. Even though he hadn’t yet heard anything officially from Netanyahu, that was enough for Shalom to tell his associates he wouldn’t run.
Knesset sources said they weren’t sure whether Netanyahu had really rejected Shalom’s pleas for support, or whether this was simply an excuse Shalom manufactured to let him bow out of the race with honor. Ever since a sexual harassment complaint was filed against him in March, the prevailing view has been that he would open himself to withering public criticism by running, even though the case was ultimately closed without an indictment because the statute of limitations had expired.
But Shalom’s associates insisted the prime minister had gotten cold feet at the last minute. “Something happened to Netanyahu over the weekend,” one said. “On Thursday, Netanyahu was very positive about supporting Shalom, but by Monday, it was already possible to sense that he was less into it, even though he hadn’t said anything clearly.”
Some members of Shalom’s circle suggested that the source of Netanyahu’s opposition was the prospect of seeing Shalom’s wife, Judy, in the President’s Residence. “In Silvan’s case, you’re not just electing a president, but a first lady,” one said. “It could be that was Netanyahu’s problem.”
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