Israel's Presidential Race Is Getting Curiouser and Curiouser

As Benjamin Ben-Eliezer loses his head, Reuven Rivlin still hopes to be in wonderland when the election takes place on Tuesday.

Olivier Fitoussi

A deathblow was dealt to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s presidential campaign on Friday afternoon, when news broke of his questioning by police regarding illegal funds used to purchase a luxury apartment in Jaffa. From that moment on, the number of votes he could expect from his main support bases, the Labor and Meretz parties – two factions that carry the banner of integrity in the Knesset – began to drop at the rate of one MK per hour. Ben-Eliezer’s formal withdrawal from the race 24 hours later was his letter of resignation.

It was Labor chairman MK Isaac Herzog who talked sense into Ben-Eliezer, when they spoke on Saturday morning. Herzog told him that if the investigation did not end in complete exoneration that very day, he should jump to the appropriate conclusions and withdraw. There is no doubt that this whole embarrassing affair enshrouds the Labor Party in a foul smell, and Herzog would prefer to be rid of it as soon as possible.

In retrospect, it’s unclear if Herzog’s decision to throw Labor’s support behind Ben-Eliezer was a smart move. Rumors and pesky questions about the funding for his luxurious penthouse always surrounded Ben-Eliezer, and it seems they were worth investigating. But the cat is already out of the bag.

Thus, the race for this rather dull, symbolic job that lacks all authority continues to provide us with countless surprises and ongoing drama. Sometimes it seems like a chapter out of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Ben-Eliezer is the second senior politician, after Silvan Shalom, to drop out of the race due to a police investigation. They’re falling one after the other, like sitting ducks, and they will probably never regain what these investigations will cost them.

The race that was blown open a month ago has been blown open again. As if we hadn’t had enough of the possibility of postponing the election – as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to do in frustration over Reuven Rivlin’s candidacy – that possibility poked its head out of the dirt again last night, back to bother the five remaining candidates.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein stated that he will convene a special meeting on Sunday to discuss the situation. Senior figures in the political system believe Edelstein is facing heavy pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to postpone the election. Netanyahu believes that these latest developments bolster Rivlin’s campaign, and Netanyahu’s feud with his Likud colleague is dictating his behavior yet again. Will Edelstein yield this time? Why even hold a meeting? Ben-Eliezer is already out of the game.

Assuming that the election goes ahead as planned on Tuesday, here is the current state of play: According to Ben-Eliezer’s staff, as well as others, he had between 30 and 33 votes in the first round, a substantial bloc that would have put him in the second round against Rivlin.

Now, it’s hard to determine how the votes will split. MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah), who wasn’t believed to have a chance to make it to the second round, believes the votes from left wing and centrist MKs will now flow in his direction. In an emergency meeting he held Saturday with Yesh Atid and Labor MKs, Sheetrit’s message was clear: If you don’t push me – the man of peace – through to the second round, you’ll be crowning Rivlin president.

At the same time, it’s safe to assume that Dalia Itzik will take some of Ben-Eliezer’s votes, as will the other candidates from outside the Knesset – retired Justice Dalia Dorner and Nobel Prize winner Dan Shechtman.

All the candidates, by the way, expressed “sorrow” on Saturday over Ben-Eliezer’s withdrawal. They really competed with each other in their press statements. And as they wiped away their tears and lamented Ben-Eliezer’s tragic fate, they have already made a rush for the votes – like birds of prey on an elephant’s corpse in the jungle. Because in politics, as everyone should know, sorrow is temporary. Very temporary.