All Bets Are Off as Israeli Presidential Race Nears Finish Line

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's withdrawal Saturday from the presidential elections has sent MKs scrambling to find a new candidate.

Amos Biderman

Just days before the presidential election, not a single Knesset member is willing to gamble on the identity of Israel’s next president. Labor Party candidate MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s exit from the race Saturday over corruption allegations has left many MKs embarrassed and scrambling to find another candidate to support.

Dalia Itzik’s camp believes Ben-Eliezer’s withdrawal won’t have significant implications for her in Tuesday’s vote. “It would be a mistake to think that Dalia Itzik will receive Ben-Eliezer’s votes,” said one Itzik associate yesterday. “Some MKs will support her, but Ben-Eliezer received much support from parties like Labor, Meretz and Kadima, and there’s no chance they will support Dalia in large numbers.

Ben-Eliezer and Itzik were thought to be leading candidates to make it to the second round of voting against Reuven Rivlin (Likud). At the moment, Ben-Eliezer’s supporters are expected to throw their weight behind former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, who was endorsed by Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On Saturday, or Meir Sheetrit, the candidate from Hatnuah.

Labor MKs pressured party chairman Isaac Herzog to declare his support for Dorner. Herzog and Dorner are expected to meet Sunday morning. All six presidential candidates have had difficulty formulating lists of supporters, mostly because only a third of MKs have agreed to publicly declare support for any candidate. Even then, many of them later said their declarations were false.

One MK told Haaretz, “I purposely lied when I declared support for a candidate. I intend to vote for a different candidate, but I’m afraid my party members will try to punish me for my vote during the next election.” Rivlin, Itzik, Sheetrit, Dorner and Ben-Eliezer all recently declared to have at least 30 MKs supporting them – which would mean that at least 150 MKs are voting.

Each candidate received official support from at least 10 MKs, which is a prerequisite for running for president, though Haaretz has learned that receiving a signature from an MK will not necessarily translate into a vote in the election.

As opposed to previous elections, there is not a coalition candidate up against an opposition candidate. For the first time, all candidates are receiving cross-party support, from both left and right, and are thus fighting for support from among the same pool.

Itzik and Rivlin both expended a lot of time and resources on forging bonds with MKs while they served as Knesset speaker, though this current Knesset has 48 new members who didn’t know either candidate during their respective terms.

Three factors make it difficult for MKs to predict President Shimon Peres’ replacement:

1. Pretty much every presidential election has had surprising results.

2. For many years, the presidential elections have been extremely close races, and this also is likely to be the case now.

3. A candidate has never been elected who wasn’t a current Knesset member. Three of the current candidates (Dorner, Itzik and Dan Shechtman) will have to overcome that hurdle if they hope to win.

The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties could likely determine the outcome of the election. Shas is waiting for its Council of Torah Sages to decide whether or not to throw party support behind one candidate, or allow its 11 MKs a free vote. United Torah Judaism is waiting on a similar decision for its seven MKs. The Arab parties – also comprising 11 MKs – are deliberating over whether to tactically vote as a bloc for a candidate that could upset Rivlin, or to support an outside candidate such as Dorner.

According to current estimates, no candidate has the necessary 61 votes to win the election in the first round. The only candidate who has garnered enough support to make it to the second round is Rivlin.

The second round, however, is anyone’s game: Each candidate will attempt to defeat Rivlin by enlisting support from his ideological rivals on the left or his political rivals on the right.

Such a move is possible, but each candidate could face last-minute difficulties: Could Itzik enlist support from Hatnuah and Kadima, despite her past feuds with the leaders of each party? Can Dorner earn support from Rivlin’s opponents on the right, even though they are considered critics of the Supreme Court? And can Sheetrit manage to enlist support from the Arab parties on one hand, and from Yisrael Beiteinu on the other?