End of Presidential Elections Heralds Tectonic Shift in Coalition

The election campaign contained no end of bizarre machinations and obsessions on the part of the prime minister. Now they may open the door to earth-shaking changes in his government.

The evening of Tuesday, May 27, was dramatic. Midnight was the deadline for presidential candidates to register. The panic in the prime minister’s residence was palpable. The last card – containing the image of the Jewish-American writer Elie Wiesel – was pulled from the shameful deck and quickly put back. Mickey Levy, the deputy finance minister, was celebrating his son’s marriage in Jerusalem with members of his party, Yesh Atid, and other politicians. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, accompanied by his wife, spoke with candidate Reuven Rivlin.

“Hello, your honor, the next president of Israel,” he said in greeting.

“It’s too soon,” Rivlin replied.

“I mean what I say,” Lapid said, and repeated, “Good evening, Mr. President.”

Rivlin, inferring from this exchange that Lapid would bring him the overwhelming majority of Yesh Atid’s 19 MKs, started to fantasize about winning in the first round of voting. The fantasy soared after MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) was forced out of the race, but it turned out that the road to victory would be long and hard, and include a showdown with MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah), who came out of nowhere. Which proves that Rivlin, even after decades of political experience, is still naïve.

Lapid apparently kept his word and voted for Rivlin, but did not go out of his way to persuade his party colleagues to do likewise. The estimate is that in the second round, about half voted for Rivlin and the others for Sheetrit, thanks to the energetic campaigning of Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen, from Yesh Atid.

The details don’t matter now. In any case, everything about the day Rivlin was elected has already been over-analyzed: the ultra-Orthodox about-face; the support Rivlin garnered from Meretz, Labor and the Arab factions (between 11 and 13 MKs from the left side of the House apparently voted for the right-winger); and the growing obsession that seized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who fought for Sheetrit until the last minute.

It’s been noted in this space before that the prime minister’s moves in the past few weeks have no real rational explanation and that their source may lie in other realms, deeper and more private. But to send people to muster votes for the opposition candidate? To want to hand a huge political triumph on a silver platter to Labor, Meretz and Hatnuah (which is still in the coalition physically but not in spirit)? To inflict a humiliating defeat on his Likud faction and touch off a brushfire among the party’s rank-and-file who longed for the election of their beloved Jerusalem Betar soccer team fan? To pull the pin from the grenade lying under his seat and bring everything down on himself? To cut off his nose to spite his face?

Those questions become more acute in the light of what the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), related on Wednesday, the day after the election. At the Knesset on Tuesday he had heard for the first time about the deals concocted the previous evening at the post-wedding ceremony for the newlywed daughter of Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri. It was nothing short of a return to the Gay Nineties: political manipulation spawned in the courtyard of Reb Aryeh and under his auspices.

At the event, Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni and Labor Party head MK Isaac Herzog huddled together – as Elkin looked on, not understanding what he was seeing – and decided to join forces and back Hatnuah candidate Sheetrit to offset the Ben-Eliezer fiasco. Afterward they recruited Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On, and some say Lapid and MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) – though only partially and probably only for tactical reasons – to prevent Dalia Itzik from making it to a possible second round.

After making a few calls, Elkin had the plan (a “trans-party move,” he called it) figured out: If Sheetrit were to win, Yoel Hasson would replace him in the Knesset on behalf of Hatnuah. Apart from the joy of victory, that would give Livni an absolute majority within her party – five MKs out of Hatnuah’s six who would back a move for the faction to leave the coalition and hook up with Labor, bringing about the government’s fall and an early election.

Elkin conveyed the message to the Prime Minister’s Bureau immediately: It was essential to back Rivlin, because any other result could prove disastrous. Nothing doing. Netanyahu’s aides were relentless: Sheetrit, Sheetrit, Sheetrit. All of those advisers objected, to put it mildly, to the mission that forced upon them, but hey, go argue with the boss and the boss lady.

In light of revelation of Sheetrit’s secret severance agreement with his former housekeeper, it can be said that this was not the finest hour of Labor MKs Herzog and Eitan Cabel, Hatnuah MKs Livni and Amir Peretz, or Meretz MKs Gal-On and Michal Rosin (the latter, former director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel). Ultra-feminists all. It’s unlikely that this is a chapter that will feature in their memoirs.

The story of the agreement with the housekeeper – who, after being fired in 2013, reportedly sued Sheetrit and his wife on charges including sexual harassment, but dropped the suit in return for a payment – was hushed up until it was reported by Channel 10 News before the presidential election. It’s pretty fishy. Who gets 270,000 shekels (now $78,000) for two years of employment? Where do you sign up for work at the Sheetrits’?

None of this prevented the espousers of morality, transparency and corruption-busting – who hadn’t yet recovered from the trauma of the Ben-Eliezer case – from backing Sheetrit. In the name of “peace,” you know. It’s always for the sake of peace.

Understandably, these folks couldn’t go with Rivlin, a right-winger who supports the settlements and the one-state-for-two-nations idea. But they could have inserted a blank ballot into the envelope. A rain of blank ballots would have been a good solution under the circumstances. Because if Sheetrit had won – and it was close – we might have woken up Wednesday, as in a recurring nightmare, with a president suspected of sexual harassment (though it has to be said that the presumption of innocence devolves on a man who hasn’t even been questioned by police).

There could be no worse scenario. There could be no greater shame and disgrace for this country. The beneficent God was merciful to Herzog, Livni, et al. They would do well to recite the prayer of thanksgiving, as a gesture to the Haredim who overwhelmingly voted for Rivlin in the second round and saved them, the leftists, from themselves.

Brother vs. brother (I)

The president-elect began the first day of the rest of his life by making a rare visit to the Prime Minister’s Residence. Netanyau was waiting, tense and jumpy, his face ashen. The man who did not want Rivlin as speaker of the Knesset was now receiving him as president, as the country’s No. 1 citizen, and his wife, Nechama Rivlin, as First Lady – as Rivlin himself described her in his speech at the Knesset.

Netanyahu called Rivlin on Tuesday evening. “I know that you are the president and that protocol requires me to come to you,” he said. “But it would be unpleasant for me to come to your home. I suggest you visit me at home tomorrow morning.” Israel’s 10th president accepted the invitation immediately. They spent over two and a quarter hours together on the veranda, about an hour and a half more than was allotted in the PM’s daily schedule. And not because they enjoy each other’s company.

In the first part of the meeting they “aired the dispute” that has arisen between them. Everything was on the table. Even after this confessional, Rivlin still doesn’t understand why the prime minister was so furious with him. Where the obsession came from. In any event, it was reported on Wednesday that Netanyahu voted for Rivlin in both rounds. He did not tell Rivlin that.

Rivlin later likened this part of the meeting – preceding a more routine update between prime minister and president – to the meetings in which he straightened out things with his brothers after quarreling with them. “It was a spat between brothers,” he said, “though I have to say that this level of anger never existed between me and my brothers. We know,” he added after reflecting on it, “that fratricidal hatred is the worst there is.”

Brother vs. brother (2)

The most commonly heard remark these days in the ruling party lately is, “Bibi has lost it.” In the uninhibited, morally unrestrained campaign he conducted with the aim of foiling Rivlin’s election, Netanyahu succeeded in losing a key ally – Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who was always with him, at his side and behind him.

The presidential saga left Sa’ar no choice: He placed himself as the chief obstacle in the face of the caprices of the couple from Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Every trick and shtick that Netanyahu came up with and tried to implement encountered immediate countermeasures by Sa’ar: Facebook posts, media interviews and the creation of united fronts with the leaders of the coalition parties.

Sa’ar acted as a one-man preventive force – against the idea of eliminating the institution of the presidency, against the attempt to change the system of government, and against the desperate and lunatic search for other candidates, some less off-the-wall than others. Wherever Netanyahu turned, there he found Sa’ar, blocking, foiling, torpedoing.

In contrast to the impression created by the media in the past few days, Sa’ar has not decided to run against Netanyahu for leadership of Likud. From the outset, he wanted only to help his old buddy, Rivlin, get elected Israel’s president. But Netanyahu is convinced, of course, that Sa’ar is already putting together his campaign team and is forging alliances with all the prime minister’s abominators, internally and externally: Noni Mozes, the publisher of the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth; the Haredim; the left, right and center; various other demons and genies; and of course the president-elect, who will entrust the formation of the next government to Sa’ar.

It’s said that even if you’re a total paranoid, that doesn’t mean that no one is after you. Netanyahu, not for the first time, is undermining that assumption. He is creating threats for himself, inventing dangers, suggesting horror scenarios, scaring himself to death and drowning in apprehension and suspicion. The question that is preoccupying Likud activists these days, senior and junior types alike, is whether there will be a reconciliation between him and Saar, or whether we’re in for a head-to-head battle. Is what we saw in the presidential campaign the overture to the great war?

In the meantime, it’s clear that Netanyahu did Sa’ar a fine service by helping him position himself as an alternative – in the same way that the prime minister made Rivlin president, and similar to the way in which he forged Naftali Bennett’s campaign for him on the eve of the last election, when the premier railed against him time and again and turned him into the leader of the right wing. That’s one ability he definitely hasn’t lost.

Staking out territory

The events of the final stretch of the presidential election campaign, which contained not a dull moment, not even after the voting booth was unceremoniously taken back to the Knesset storeroom, produced what those in-the-know say is nothing less than a tectonic shift in the coalition.

The peace plan put forward last week by Yair Lapid calls for withdrawal from uninhabited areas of the territories and the evacuation of isolated settlements. “The money is buried between Yitzhar and Itamar,” Lapid uttered in his sound bite, referring to two extremist settlements.

It took him time, but though he tarried, it’s good he has finally arrived. Or, as Leah Rabin said to those who came to offer condolences after the murder of her husband, “It’s too bad you didn’t come before, but it’s good that you came now.”

More than a year and a half after he launched his election campaign in the West Bank city of Ariel, Lapid has seen the light and reached the conclusion that without an agreement and without peace talks, and with the continuation of incessant construction in the territories, the Israeli economy will go bust. He was assisted in internalizing this truth mainly by two party colleagues: Science and Technology Minister (and former Shin Bet security service chief) Jacob Perry and MK Ofer Shelah. They have been giving him the word since before the election and have done so more intensely ever since. They dug and drilled, explained and reasoned – until he got it.

Lapid’s shift to the left is strategic politically, too. And also personal. From the gut, not from the head. His strategic adviser and pollster, Mark Mellman, advised him to stick with the original message that garnered him 19 seats in the election: the need to deal with the plight of the middle class. Lapid decided to do something quite different.

It’s not that he thinks that his peace plan will be implemented or become government policy. In the end it’s the prime minister who decides. But the finance minister definitely wants to stick his foot in the policy door and stake out some territory of his own.