Of such a pleasure the power to determine Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate Shimon Peres could only dream. Seventeen years after Netanyahu defeated him in the first direct election of a prime minister, Peres, now the president, will be an important partner in solving the riddle of Netanyahu’s political future.
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If Netanyahu doesn’t remain prime minister, he also won’t and may not even want to remain head of the Likud party. His previous defeat, in 1999, caused him to go home voluntarily. This time it would be final, insofar as anything is final in Israeli politics, which frequently recycles its fallen heros.
But Peres won’t be free to decide whatever he pleases; he will be a slave to the numbers. A legal opinion drafted by the legal advisor to the President’s Residence leaves no room for doubt: The president can use his own judgment only if the various parties’ recommendations result in a tie. If 61 MKs recommend Netanyahu and 59 recommend someone else, Peres will have to task Netanyahu with forming the government.
This morning, before the final, official results are published, it is still possible that Netanyahu’s opponents will control 60 seats. But in order for them not to divide their votes, they must agree among themselves on whom to recommend for prime minister: Yair Lapid, Shelly Yacimovich, or perhaps both in rotation. They will then have to recruit the Arab parties to their side.
The latter aren’t in anyone’s pocket; they can barely agree among themselves. But the center-left parties must overcome their aversion to forming a government with the Arab parties’ participation. The coalition won’t be dependent on them, because Shas and United Torah Judaism will rush to join any government.
It’s also not clear to what extent Netanyahu can rely on the support of Avigdor Lieberman, who might dismantle his partnership with Likud and move his Yisrael Beiteinu party leftward perhaps out of a (mistaken) calculation that this would soften the prosecution’s attitude in the legal proceedings against him.
This is the responsibility each party leader bears: You recommended him, you crowned him. In the last election, then-Labor leader Ehud Barak refrained from recommending then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, as did Meretz and the Arab parties. The ultimate sorry result was that Labor split in two and Barak has disappeared as a political factor.
This time, with an eye to the next election, the party leaders would do better to act like a conclave of cardinals deciding who will be the next pope.
There’s no direct correlation between the size of the victory and the longevity of the government. In 1959, David Ben-Gurion won a huge victory for his Mapai party, but this was the shortest Knesset in Israel’s history, lasting a mere 21 months.
In contrast, there is a direct correlation between the number of MKs who support the prime minister and his ability to claim that he has a mandate to conduct a given policy. Netanyahu, even if he ends up forming the government, did not receive a mandate from the Israeli public for a military adventure in Iran, or for a freeze in diplomatic efforts to solve our conflict with the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. And he shouldn’t get such a mandate from the public’s elected representatives, either.
But all else aside, the 2013 election made one thing clear: The 21st century has come to Israeli politics. It did so via party leaders who came to the Knesset from television studios rather than the army or government service, and by raising up a new, young generation beside which Netanyahu looks like a tired old man.
Three times in its history, Israel has elected a prime minister under the age of 60: Yitzhak Rabin in 1974, Netanyahu in 1996 and Barak in 1999. If the math works out, and the party leaders doing the recommending are wise enough, Peres, now in his 90th year, could participate from on high in making this happen a fourth time.