Wheeling and Dealing for Israel's Presidency: A Guide

The victor in next week's presidential vote will depend as much on who wants to punish whom, as it does on admiration for the candidates.

When it comes to the presidential elections, there is one thing alone on which there is a sweeping consensus in the Knesset: Candidate Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin is certain to be a contestant in the second and decisive round of voting. Opinions and evaluations differ about who the other candidate will be (Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Dalia Itzik are currently the favorites).

The other big questions also have no clear-cut answers: Who will the ultra-Orthodox vote for? Will Ben-Eliezer – who at the instruction of his rebb, aka Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, did not vote in favor of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s proposed legislation on mandatory military service – nevertheless get votes from Yesh Atid, Lapid’s party? Will Benjamin Netanyahu, who was forced to declare support for Rivlin, transmit contrary, subversive messages to Likud MKs?

Will Meir Sheetrit, from Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, Dalia Dorner from the Supreme Court or Dan Shechtman from the Nobel pull off a surprise? According to the communiqués coming from the campaign headquarters of both Sheetrit and Dorner, we are all in for an earthquake next Tuesday, when the Knesset will elect the next president.

In the meantime, let’s consider the Haredi question. The 18 MKs of the Haredim (11 Sephardim, 7 Ashkenazim) constitute 15 percent of the electorate. If they were to unite, they might well be able to decide the outcome – certainly they would have a major say about the identity of our next president. But they are divided.

A case in point is Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Anyone who speaks with him could easily form the impression that he is leaning toward Ben-Eliezer. At Deri’s recommendation, the head of the Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, will decide whether to oblige the Shas MKs to vote for a particular candidate or whether to allow them to vote according to their conscience. For Cohen’s predecessor, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, voting according to one’s conscience was anathema. But Ovadia knew all the candidates well. They made pilgrimages to him on Jewish festivals and took part in his many joyous family events, and he would give them a friendly slap on the cheek and scold them. But Cohen doesn’t know any of the candidates personally. Accordingly, the assessment in Shas is that he will allow the MKs to decide for themselves how to vote.

Someone asked Deri about the considerations that will guide him in the presidential election. For example, do a state-oriented ethos and a gift for representativeness play a part? “Of course,” he said, adding, “There is no doubt that the state-ethos candidate is Rivlin. But Ben-Eliezer is better in private conversations. He has more personal charm, and I don’t deny that the Mizrahi question is also important for us” (Ben-Eliezer is of Iraqi-Jewish descent). “We are a Mizrahi party.”

Deri recalled that the state-ethos issue led him, in his previous incarnation as Shas chairman, to recommend Labor candidate Ezer Weizman twice to Ovadia – in 1993, against Likud’s Dov Shilansky, and in 1998, for a second term, against another Likud figure, Shaul Amor. (At the time, the presidential term of office was five years, with the possibility of reelection to a second term. Today there is a single seven-year term.)

Shas MK Ariel Atias has been longing to resign from the Knesset for some time. But every time he’s threatened to leave, the rabbis have persuaded him to stay on a little longer. The latest excuse is the presidential election.

“I don’t care who the next president is,” Atias said this week, “and Shas has no reason to care, either. What do we get from the president? In 2007, I was a key force in persuading Rabbi Ovadia to back [Shimon] Peres. Nu? So what did I get from Peres? I met with him maybe five times during his whole term, and when we asked him to protect the Haredim against the rampages of Yesh Atid, he barely said a sentence and a half.”

Even though he doesn’t care, Atias will probably not vote for Rubi Rivlin, because the latter is from the right wing, and Likud specifically, and Atias has an account to settle with the right wing and with Netanyahu. And even though Bibi doesn’t want Rubi, the election of Ben-Eliezer – which would be taken as a victory for the opposition and can be expected to generate a wave of cheering and applause on the Labor benches, as well as media speculation about an erosion of the PM’s clout in the Knesset and about the writing on the wall for his government – will grieve Netanyahu more. And that’s the supreme imperative for Atias: to grind, grind, grind (Netanyahu’s face into the dust).

Use of camouflage

MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) believes that Ben-Eliezer will make it through to the second round. “The battle between him and Rivlin will be decided in the Likud Knesset faction,” Cabel says. “It all depends on how many Likud MKs vote for Rivlin in the end. If an absolute majority of them support him, he will be elected. It’s the 'free haters' in Likud who will ultimately decide the identity of the next president.”

That’s a fairly astute analysis. Rivlin has no few ardent supporters in his faction, along with equally ardent and determined opponents. There are some MKs who have declared that they will vote for him – for fear that the party’s grassroots want a Likud president who will restore to that office the honor stolen from it by Moshe Katsav – but will not vote for him. Other MKs, who are not expressing public support for him, will nevertheless cast their ballot for Rivlin in the privacy of the voting booth next Tuesday.

Given the almost total support by the Likud functionary class for Rivlin, the silence of those latter MKs is intriguing. One question looms large: If the activists are for Rivlin, and if Netanyahu has even declared his support for him, why don’t these other MKs speak out? There can be only one explanation: This is their understanding of the messages being conveyed to them from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. It’s not by chance that this group includes a number of MKs and cabinet ministers over whom Netanyahu exerts influence of one kind or another. They have apparently reached the conclusion that the boss (whether male, female or both) will not look kindly on their coming out publicly in favor of the only candidate being put forward by Likud.

The subject of contradictory messages and the use of camouflage brings us straight to Avigdor Lieberman. At the beginning of the week, the foreign minister and leader of Yisrael Beiteinu gave two solemn declarations to the cameras at the start of the cabinet meeting: (A) His 10 MKs will be able to vote as they please; and (B) He does not intend to occupy himself “even for one second” with the presidential race. He has a foreign policy to run.

The automatic interpretation placed on Lieberman’s statement was: Dalia Itzik has had it. According to the long-prevailing opinion in the Knesset, Lieberman plans to vote for Itzik. He owes her for her support for the bizarre candidacy of his gofer and loyalist, Moshe Leon, the accountant from Givatayim, in last year’s election for mayor of Jerusalem. Lieberman even considered obliging his whole faction to vote as he will vote. Now, they are ostensibly free to vote as they please.

But there’s another scenario, too: The wily Lieberman announced the freedom of vote so that Itzik will not appear to be his party’s candidate, as this might cost her the votes of the left-leaning precincts in the House. But in private conversations, he will tell his MKs, as they look into the whites of his eyes: Make sure you vote. For Dalia.

Fudged by Kerry

It used to be that the prime minister appeared routinely before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Recently, though, such appearances have become rare. The fault lies not with Netanyahu but with the political clash between him and Lapid, which prevented the appointment of a permanent chairman for the committee for a lengthy period. Less than a month ago, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) got the job, and on Monday, after an absence of half a year, the prime minister gave the committee a tour d’horizon. It wasn’t the very fact of his presence that made the meeting unusual, but some of the things he said – and, in retrospect, the political developments that occurred the next day.

Netanyahu’s presentation was bland and general. “Less than a press survey,” someone muttered. The participants found him listless and tired. MK Cabel told him, “I am against you, but I like you. I’m not being facetious. I really mean it. There is something touching about you. But I am impressed every time anew by your ability to come here, tell us nothing and force us to listen to nothing. In World Cup terms, you haven’t even moved into the area. All you’ve done is circle around at midfield.”

As expected, the right-wing representatives – Elkin, Yariv Levin (Likud) et al. – urged the possible annexation of territories in response to the Palestinians’ unity government. As expected, Netanyahu mumbled something noncommittal. As expected, MKs from the left blamed the government for the breakdown of the talks. “It’s the construction in the settlements,” said Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On. At this point, Netanyahu burst out of his torpor. “That’s nonsense! Nonsense!” he railed furiously at Gal-On, according to committee members. “You think it’s the construction in the territories? I tell you it’s Tel Aviv! Tel Aviv!

“The source of the problem is not the settlements,” Netanyahu went on. “The conflict with the Palestinians started before there was a single settlement. The root of the problem is the existence of the Jewish state. They tried to present it as though it’s the settlements, but I insisted that they recognize us a Jewish state, and they were forced to admit that this is the issue. You know that I am good at flooding the international agenda with issues,” Netanyahu bragged. (We will come back to that remark shortly.)

“Finally the cat is out of the bag,” Gal-On retorted. “The real Netanyahu has come out. What was the Bar-Ilan speech [that is, the 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, where he said he favored two states] about? What did you negotiate for nine months? You were just treading water. After all, you don’t believe in the two-state solution. It’s all lip service with you. Just political survival.”

Netanyahu drew the MKs’ attention to an article by the head Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, which was posted on the Web at some point in the midst of the negotiations. Erekat wrote that the Palestinian Authority was striving to internationalize the conflict and then to achieve reconciliation with Hamas. “It was clear,” Netanyahu argued. “That was their trajectory. Not an agreement, not an accord, not two states, but internationalization, reconciliation and then an approach to the United Nations.”

The obvious conclusion from Netanyahu’s remarks drew a smile of relief from the right-wing MKs and cast an understandable pall over the left-wing MKs: It’s clear from what he said that the peace negotiations will not be renewed. There is no such scenario. No feasibility and no chance. Bad blood is running, the waters are turgid.

“After you’ve said what’s not going to happen,” Netanyahu was asked in different variations by MKs Nachman Shai (Labor), Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), “what is going to happen? What’s our horizon? What’s the plan? What is Israeli proposing?” The prime minister did not answer. He mumbled something about the Bar-Ilan speech.

Let’s go back to that “flooding the international agenda” remark. Part of the survey dealt with the reactions of the international community, headed by the United States, to the establishment of the Palestinian unity government. Netanyahu told the MKs that he had spoken with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry the evening before. “The Americans are examining their approach,” he reported. “They will wait before deciding.” The committee members formed the impression that Netanyahu had good reason to believe that American recognition of the new Palestinian government was not at all close.

But within a few hours, Washington stated officially that it intends to cooperate with the Fatah-Hamas government. Half a day later, while the Israelis were getting ready to feast on cheeses and vegetable pies on Shavuot, the United Nations, the European Union, India and China joined the United States. In short, the whole world and his wife. Israel remained isolated, rejected, insular and resentful. Netanyahu’s concept – “to flood the international agenda with issues” – seemed to be self-parody.

Those 24 hours, between Monday and Tuesday, are the short history of the resounding policy collapse of the government of Israel. It turned out that during those long days and nights, when all the energies and adrenaline of the prime minister and his staff were invested in the mission of his life, in the rock of our existence and the apple of his eye – eliminating the institution of the presidency or, alternatively, eliminating the candidacy of Rubi, or alternatively to the alternative, whipping out a new candidate from wherever – the Palestinians were working overtime in Washington and in the capitals of other key world powers.

Every child understands that the U.S. statement of de facto recognition in the new Palestinian government immediately after its oath-taking ceremony is no coincidence. It was coordinated long before, between the Obama administration and the Abbas administration, and Kerry simply fudged Netanyahu when they spoke the evening before. This American alacrity is not self-evident.

Five months before the congressional elections in November, with Obama and the Democrats having no desire for a fight with Netanyahu, this is clearly a Palestinian victory that was achieved even before the battle started. To return to the Cabel’s World Cup soccer metaphor, we can compare Abbas’ diplomatic achievement to a golden goal that is scored with a bicycle kick after a fantastic assist, without there being a goalkeeper in the opponent’s net.