Sweat and Tears: How Rivlin Won - Despite His Own Party

Over half of the Likud was prepared to hand the left a victory, just to humiliate Rivlin.

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Reuven Rivlin and Meir Sheetrit embrace in the Knesset Plenum, after the results were made known. Tuesday, June 9, 2014.
Reuven Rivlin and Meir Sheetrit embrace in the Knesset Plenum, after the results were made known. Tuesday, June 9, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

At twilight, after the first and second dramas, the flushed, celebratory and sweaty president-elect Reuven Rivlin stepped into the Knesset speaker’s room, surrounded by a crowded, noisy and sticky swarm: writers, photographers, friends, supporters, bodyguards.

Ten minutes later, the prime minister showed up with another swarm. He looked humiliated, his face a turmeric-yellow. Benjamin Netanyahu entered the room, where besides Rivlin there was already the head of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, and a number of ministers.

Rivlin got up from his chair, and with a pleasant facial expression welcomed him, “Honorable prime minister, look what joy, not only that I was elected president but that tomorrow Carmel Shama-Hacohen will take my place in the Knesset.”

That’s Rivlin. A laugh and a tear always dwelled in him as one, and Netanyahu knows these two traits, from up close. The two men are to meet on Wednesday in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, as per Netanyahu’s request. It will be the appeasement after which, one can assume, all thoughts of revenge (if there were any) in Rivlin’s head will disappear at once, and he will be a diplomatic, fair, respectful, uncalculating and non-grudge bearing president – not because he respects Netanyahu the man but rather because he reveres the institution of the prime minister and the norms of governance.

He will also be a populist president, in the positive sense of the word. He will visit not just settlements, but Arab, Druze and Bedouin villages. He won’t preach the problematic idea of one state but stick to internal affairs.

Before the great joy, there was great worry. Rivlin spent the 45 minutes between the two votes in his room with some supporters. He was dejected, lamenting his bitter fate: projections gave him just 54 votes in the first round - and he got ten fewer. It looked like he had been stabbed in the back.

His rival Meir Sheetrit, who two days earlier was a marginal candidate, finished second with 31 votes. Despite the gap, the dark horse had the momentum. Rivlin’s reserves were spent.

Fellow Likudniks Gideon Sa’ar and Haim Katz, two of his first supporters, were in the room with him. It’s no coincidence he mentioned them in his “thank you” speech. They coolly asserted all was not lost.

Katz sat by the phone. Sa’ar paid a courtesy call to Shas and UTJ, and returned to tell Rivlin that most of the Haredim were switching to him. Yet he still needed five or six votes to reach 61. In the end the extra votes came from Labor (four), Yisrael Beiteinu (two), an Arab party and Yesh Atid (two), but not from Likud. The biggest betrayal came from his own party, from where came some 13 votes out of a possible 20.

Over half the faction was prepared to spark an interparty war and hand the left victory just to humiliate him. Signs indicate one of them was probably Netanyahu, who likely acted on Sheetrit’s behalf. MKs identified with Rivlin said they received phone calls late Monday night from Netanyahu associates asking them to give their votes to Sheetrit.

The runoff began. Rivlin sat in his chair with a mournful face. He spent a long hour surrounded by his comforters. Elsewhere in the plenum, Labor’s Itzik Shmuli, who had supported Dalia Dorner in the first round, voted. Logically, he should have supported Sheetrit, but the young MK loves Rivlin, who loves him back.

“I saw before me a squashed, suffering man,” said Shmuli. “I told myself that for all the right and left politics, we are all human beings.” He voted Rivlin.

Half of Rivlin’s 63 votes came from the opposition. He received a bloc of 11-12 votes from Habayit Hayehudi and more from Yesh Atid. In the hidden struggle between Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu, who didn’t want Rivlin, Bennett won.

It’s the foreign minister’s third burning defeat: After failing to reach a promised 45 seats in the Knesset and backing the wrong mayoral horse in Jerusalem, he failed to get Dalia Itzik into the runoff.

Rivlin’s romance with the Yesh Atid MKs did not generate the expected number of votes, but it was a nice chunk, considering they were free to vote their conscience, and Meir Cohen worked tirelessly for Sheetrit, his brother-in-law. Some had voted for Sheetrit in the first round to keep out Itzik, but did not repeat their vote in the second round, a “tactical vote” as faction chairman Ofer Shelah described it.

Rivlin in part owes his victory to Lapid, who was a journalist when the two met en route to Berlin in 2012. Rivlin, on his way to the Bundestag, asked Lapid if he planned to enter politics.

“Yes,” replied Lapid, “partly because the next Knesset will have to choose a good president, and I want to be there myself to make sure you are elected.” Lapid, as far as is known, kept his promise and voted for Rivlin.

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