Behind the Scenes: Netanyahu's Last Minute, Wiesel-for-president Scramble

It was Finance Minister Yair Lapid who first suggested Elie Wiesel to Netanyahu, three months ago - but the premier saw no urgency until two hours before the deadline.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.

With his frenetic behavior in the past few weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu totally humiliated two state institutions: the presidency and the premiership. In another two weeks, after the dust settles on the race for the presidency, we will all look back in disbelief that this farce actually took place.

The tremendous energy that Netanyahu expended in an effort to postpone the presidential election, to abolish the presidency altogether, and to round up alternative candidates, from Israel, from the world and from neighboring galaxies, to save him from the punishment named Reuven Rivlin, and along the way to change the governmental regime in Israel – why, all that energy could have lit Ramat Gan.

Some see his obstinate insistence on improvising, manipulating, sabotaging and trying to come up with a last-minute candidate at the very last second as the expression of an uncontrolled obsession, a complete befuddlement and a worrisome disconnect from reality. On the other hand, it’s just that quality that made him an outstanding fighter in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit: He doesn’t quit. Bibi likes to tell about a mission that he and his squad were given one time by their revered commander, Ehud Barak, to move a giant boulder from one place to another. A mission thoroughly impossible, but which was accomplished. With physical power, mental power, the spiritual might and endless determination.

Thus, even if only two hours remained until the deadline for submitting one’s candidacy, as midnight approached on Tuesday, Netanyahu did not get into bed with a good book. He was still making urgent phone calls to the leaders of the coalition in an effort to validate the candidacy of the writer Elie Wiesel, the American Nobel laureate, who does not have Israeli citizenship and would not be eligible to run. Not until all avenues had proved impassable and the clock struck midnight did the prime minister get up, fold the notepaper on which he had been making calculations and drawing flow charts, and for the first time resign himself to failure.

It was Yair Lapid who first suggested Wiesel to Netanyahu, three months ago. The finance minister considers Wiesel something of a friend. But at that stage the prime minister was not ready to listen. Either he thought he would succeed in having the election postponed, or he simply saw no urgency, because for him three months is an eternity. Now, though, things were urgent indeed.

On Tuesday night around 10 P.M., two hours before the registration deadline, Lapid was at the wedding of the son of his deputy in the Finance Ministry, Mickey Levy, when Netanyahu called him. He asked Lapid to check what was happening with Wiesel immediately. Lapid called the distinguished writer. According to political sources, Wiesel, who was surprised by all the urgency, said to Lapid: “Netanyahu? He did not speak with me. A woman named Perach spoke to me.” That would be Perach Lerner, the prime minister’s active, efficient parliamentary adviser.

Bottom line: Wiesel wasn’t interested. For all kinds of reasons, some of them personal. Lapid got back to Netanyahu with that reply. In the meantime, the premier had spoken with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett about Wiesel. It made little difference. When the bizarre candidacy of the latter faded away, the penny dropped, too, somewhere. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was able to pack his things and go home, to Gush Etzion in the West Bank, with the safe in his office containing recommendation forms signed by at least 10 MKs for each of the final candidates: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Dalia Itzik, Dalia Dorner, Dan Shechtman, Meir Sheetrit and Rivlin.

The Netanyahu method

An ancient Chinese saying goes, “What did I do for you that you hate me so much?” Nothing is more apt than that saying, which is so perceptive about man’s warped nature, to describe the relationship between Reuven Rivlin and Benjamin Netanyahu. Rubi and Bibi. For years they were sidekicks. Rivlin was one of the few who was with Netanyahu at his most difficult moments, such as when Ariel Sharon and his followers left Likud in 2005. Or during the long, sad, post-2006-election days when Likud crashed to 12 seats and a few senior figures in the shrunken faction tried to organize a putsch to unseat Netanyahu. Rivlin, who was the faction chairman at the time, was one of those who blocked that effort.

It’s true that in Netanyahu’s second term, Rivlin, as Knesset speaker, clashed with him over a number of material issues relating to the independence of the parliament and its status with regard to the executive branch. Similar quarrels broke out in the past between almost every Knesset speaker and the prime minister who appointed them. Even between Dalia Itzik and Ehud Olmert over the Arrangements Law, for example.

Dan Tichon related not long ago that throughout his three years as speaker, during Netanyahu’s first term (1996-1999), they did not exchange a word. The problem is with the way Netanyahu looks at the Knesset speaker: not as the head of the legislative branch but as another arm of the executive branch. That’s not how it works.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rivlin’s private mobile phone rang. Perach Lerner was on the line and patched him through to the boss. Both of the men, by the way, were in the Knesset at the time, a few hundred meters from each other as the crow flies. “Rubi ...,” Netanyahu began, and went on to say more or less what was contained in the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Actually, in the good old days, Netanyahu would call Rivlin “Reuven” when he phoned. Like some kind of double negative. So if he calls him “Rubi,” it’s a sign of deterioration in their relations.

The prevailing view in the Knesset is that Netanyahu’s late, sour and coerced statement of support for Rivlin will not make a serious difference in the race. It might give the Likud candidate an extra vote or two – the president is elected by the Knesset – but what’s not clear is whether it will take votes away from him. The ultra-Orthodox MKs declared in the past that they would not vote for the candidate supported by Netanyahu, whoever that might be. The question is whether they are really interpreting the premier's minute-and-a-half-long call as support, or taking it for what it actually was: a surrender to massive pressure exerted on Netanyahu by most key Likud figures – down to the level of grass-roots activists and heads of the local branches. They made it unequivocally clear to him that they were more than displeased by his behavior.

Netanyahu realized that if Rivlin wins, he would have a hostile, vengeful president on his hands, and that if Rivlin loses, he would be perceived in the party as having contributed to the loss. Once again, the “Netanyahu method,” as it’s called in Likud, didn’t disappoint. After he did all that’s humanly possible to squash Rivlin, the institution of the presidency and the country, and after having already paid a heavy price in the media, in public opinion and in his party, Netanyahu was dragged, kicking and screaming, into making that brief phone call.

If we’re on the subject of the price paid by Netanyahu, we can add the mince-no-words reaction of Avigdor Lieberman. The foreign minister and head of Yisrael Beiteinu did not spare the prime minister his wrath for having taken a unilateral step that was contrary to earlier agreements between them (in which Rivlin’s name did not even come up as an option). This episode adds a brick to the wall of the already tense relations between the two veteran partners, the PM and the FM. Another example can be seen in the compliments Lieberman has been heaping on Moshe Kahlon, who is considered a serious threat to Netanyahu’s prospects of forming the next government, too. The moment Netanyahu goes back to toeing the line with his party, the feasibility of the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu framework deceases, and Lieberman’s hope is also dashed. Again.

Crystalline isolation

Wednesday at midday. A full turnout in the Knesset. The spacious cafeteria is buzzing. Enter Prof. Dan Shechtman, the only presidential candidate with a Nobel Prize, accompanied by an assistant, who takes a seat at a table in the heart of the big hall. He sits there for a long time, but no one approaches him. Not an MK, not a cabinet minister. Until along comes Labor and opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog. He takes pity, feels uncomfortable, and joins Shechtman. They spend a few minutes in cordial conversation until Herzog gets up and leaves, thrusting Shechtman back into his isolation.

Closing of circles

Lengthy, resounding, frosty silence – that was and remains the response of the Prime Minister’s Bureau to the expected meeting of President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a joint prayer in the Vatican under the auspices of Pope Francis. The pope extended the invitation twice during his visit here this week: once in the outdoor Mass in Bethlehem and again during the arrival ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport, when he addressed Peres directly. Netanyahu, who was seated next to the president, looked – as the Hebrew saying has it – as though he had swallowed a frog, a particularly fat and juicy one.

The two presidents accepted immediately. There was no spontaneity involved, as everyone realizes: The idea came up originally almost half a year ago, not necessarily in the Vatican, and has since been simmering in a pot on the stove. The story has been known in the bureaus of Peres and Abbas for months. But Netanyahu was let in on the secret by the president’s people only a few days before the papal visit.

Peres did not ask for permission. He is not especially impressed by the security cabinet’s decision to bar meetings between official Israelis and Palestinian officials. In fact, he is scornful of it. Our prime minister, we can safely assume, gnashed his teeth and scowled, as usual. Unfortunately for him, he can’t threaten Peres with dismissal. In fact, this whole week wasn’t great for Netanyahu’s teeth.

The meeting in the Vatican, which will take place next week or the week after that, will be a diplomatic slap in the face for Netanyahu. For Peres, it will be like the closing of a circle after the fiasco three years ago, when Netanyahu prevented him, at the last minute, from traveling to Jordan to finalize an agreement of principles with Abbas.

The international community is taking a great interest in the impending event in Rome. According to sources in the President’s Residence, it will be a grandiose production, no less, with the participation of rabbis, imams and priests. Live television broadcasts and other media coverage of Peres and Abbas hugging, delivering emotional speeches in favor of peace, closeting themselves for a private meeting and huddling with the leaders of Christendom – these can only be a PR disaster for the prime minister of Israel, though they will also serve as an appropriate coda for the public career of the outgoing president.

Peres, who will be presented as the only person in Israel who has relations of trust with the Palestinian president, will revel in the global enthusiasm in his final days in office. Netanyahu will have to pick up the pieces.

Sharp last words

Let’s turn now to a matter that is not entirely unrelated: Those who are watching Justice Minister Tzipi Livni closely have the impression that she is about to close a circle of her own. Namely, to return to the place in which she spent most of her political career: as a sharply vocal critic of Benjamin Netanyahu. “Tzipi will cross the Livnicon,” says a veteran Livnologist, citing the high profile which she herself placed on her own meeting with Abbas in London two weeks ago.

Her defiant statement that, despite Netanyahu’s dismissal threats, she would meet again with the Palestinian leader if she thought this was the right thing to do – “for the sake of the State of Israel,” of course – signals a contrarian spirit on her side. To her colleagues in the government, she looks to have come to terms with the realization that her days in the Bibi-Bennett coalition are running out, and thus is looking for an excuse for a thunderous departure by means of a move that will leverage her sinking status and dwindling stock in the left-center camp. Witness her repeated attacks on Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and Habayit Hayehudi.

Traditionally, Livni tends to lower the flames when it comes to prime ministers. But when she gets into a confrontation, she feeds the flames. That’s what she did as foreign minister and acting prime minister, when the corruption cases against Olmert mounted and she planned to succeed him. She will not do that with Netanyahu, but she can definitely accelerate his fall. And to ensure that his fall will not bring in its wake her disappearance from the political map, this time permanently (because she won’t get a third chance to enter the room), she will have to find herself a new political home. With Lapid, with Herzog, with Kahlon, or – and this is the hot speculation these days – in a joint axis with her good friends Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Lieberman.

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