Peres, the PM, and the Politics Behind the Presidency

The idea of having the country’s citizens elect the president is completely misbegotten. Isn’t the Knesset, elected by and representing the people, good enough for that?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The initiative by the Prime Minister’s Bureau to extend Shimon Peres’ term as president by a year and let the people decide who will be the next president was a trial balloon. But that balloon quickly lost whatever hot air it contained and spluttered limply to the ground. The first attempt to shoot it down came from the President’s Residence. The savvy president grasped that he was being used as a pawn. He quickly announced that he would not remain in the residence so much as one day after his term of office ends this July. That by itself was enough to prick the balloon.

If until a year ago, Peres himself toyed with the idea of extending his term, he realized at some point that amending a Basic Law for a single individual, even if that individual is him, is constitutionally twisted, difficult to implement in political terms, and almost certain to be invalidated by the High Court of Justice.

Once this trickled into Peres’ consciousness, he did an about-face and started speaking enthusiastically about alternative projects for his golden years: from establishing a new political party to undertaking international projects involving the human brain or nano-whatever. Maybe he’ll create a nano-party?

The difficulties of changing the law were compounded by another problem, according to a report by Army Radio. The PM’s Bureau suggested a general election for the next president at the end of the additional year. Populism personified, but we should have seen it coming. Last Friday, the freebie Israel Hayom ran a banner headline, touting a poll thath found that 72 percent of the public would like the president to be elected by the people (rather than by the Knesset, as has been the case since 1948).

A widespread rumor has it that constructive bilateral relations exist between the freebie and Netanyahu’s bureau. We will never know whether that headline was meant to be the dove dispatched to see whether the land was ripe for good tidings, or maybe just a coincidence. Readers may draw their own conclusions.

The idea of having the country’s citizens elect the president is completely misbegotten. Should they really elect a person for a symbolic position, with powers that don’t extend beyond signing pardons for criminals, receiving the credentials of new ambassadors, telling one of 120 newly elected MKs to form a government, and participating in hundreds of ceremonies? Isn’t the Knesset, elected by and representing the people, good enough for that?

Does Israel need another election campaign, which will cost hundreds of millions of shekels, including a paid holiday on voting day? And who will be allowed to compete? Let’s say that each candidate has to collect 5,000 signatures in order to qualify. Does anyone doubt that 15 years ago, entertainer Dudu Topaz, aka “the King,” could have been a leading candidate?

The real question is why the PM’s Bureau chose this moment, three and a half months before the election of a new president, with the race at its height, to float this sagging balloon. It’s well known (at least among insiders in the Knesset) that Netanyahu does not want to see either of the two top candidates – MKs Reuven Rivlin, from Likud, and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, from Labor – become president.

Furthermore, the premier positively gags at the thought that he might have to call Minister Silvan Shalom “Mr. President” (for many years they called each other names of a different kind). For his part, Shalom is still testing the waters.

Netanyahu might be able to live with either Nobel laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman, former politician Dalia Itzik, retired justice Dalia Dorner or Meir Sheetrit, from Tzipi Livni’s party. But he knows that their prospects are poor. At the moment, each of them is far from collecting the necessary 10 signatures of MKs needed to enter the race.

Putting things off is Netanyahu’s favorite pastime. It allows him, for example, to consider at his leisure whether to run himself for president, after nine years as prime minister. A year ago, when this column suggested that scenario, the assessment in the Knesset was that he would have no difficulty being elected by all 120 MKs, as most of them have a salient political interest in getting him out of their way.

A contradictory view holds that he would meet a stinging defeat in a secret vote, because in his years as a politico, he has left in his wake legions of affronted and disappointed colleagues, who will not miss this chance to humiliate him. He actually has a better chance to be elected president by the nation at large.

As part of the daily brainstorming by circles close to his bureau, in an attempt to pull a worthy candidate, with a chance to win, out of the hat, the name of former minister Benny Begin came up this week. Let’s admit it: It’s a brilliant idea. But then someone remembered that Begin and Rivlin have been close friends for 40 years. They are even neighbors. They hang out the laundry window across from window. “Benny would never do that to Rubi,” a certain individual observed.
The enthusiasm faded quickly, and the old feeling of gloom descended anew in the bureau.

Not quite an equal burden

On Wednesday, Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry picked up a cane, got into his government car and was driven to the Knesset. He’d been at home for five weeks after undergoing complicated hip-replacement surgery. Full recovery is still a long way off, but Perry could not conceive of forgoing a victory lap, even with a slight limp.

The new draft law, which was approved that evening by the committee headed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), is very similar in wording to the proposed legislation produced by the government panel Perry himself previously headed.
Perry, from Yesh Atid, is one of the former Shin Bet security chiefs who starred in Dror Moreh’s documentary “The Gatekeepers,” and he sees himself as the gatekeeper of the new draft law.

The strategy that led to success in conquering the target was devised in recent weeks on the balcony of his apartment in the upscale Dan neighborhood of north Tel Aviv, during nighttime meetings – under gas heaters – with party leader Yair Lapid and his staff. The group decided who, if it was needed, would threaten to resign from the government (first Perry, then Lapid), and when, and determined what the party’s Knesset faction head, MK Ofer Shelah, would compromise on and what he would fight for.

The party’s slogan about “equalizing the burden” was apparently left for the next election campaign: The new law contains everything but equality. In fact, there will never be equality between a secular young man without a political lobby behind him, and his religiously observant peer, who seeks a cushy, beneficial (in economic and other terms) type of arrangement known as hesder, which combines religious study with military service.

Indeed, the secular man will serve 36 months, while the religious one will do 17 months (instead of the previously stipulated 16 months – thanks a lot). The latter will spend the remainder of his three years in a yeshiva. That can involve studying Torah, sleeping, hiking or doing odd jobs, as was revealed on “The Source,” TV Channel 10’s investigative show, this week.

“We tried to lock the law in as much as possible,” Perry explained Wednesday. “There was an attempt by MK Shaked to expand the government’s powers. She wanted to give the government the authority to decide whether the ultra-Orthodox men met the induction goals [i.e., quotas]. We inserted that into the law. You ask me what will happen four years down the line, when there will be a new government and a new Knesset? I can’t say.”

The details of the law were discussed extensively yesterday in the media. One thing is not in dispute: The law's passage became a fact when the penny dropped for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He realized that Lapid was serious about resigning immediately from the government if the law did not pass with the wording he wanted.

The arithmetic left the prime minister no choice. He decided in favor of Lapid and against the compromise and softening of the wording desired by Habayit Hayehudi. Draft-dodgers will now face criminal sanctions if the Haredi public does not meet the quotas stated in the law. However, instead of this clause coming into effect on June 30, 2017 – it will apply from December 31 of that year. So, the ultra-Orthodox got half a year’s grace. Lapid, by the way, insisted that the date not be January 1, 2018. Everything has to happen in 2017, he told his interlocutors.

What will happen until then will be no less than a mass exemption for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, beginning in the middle of next month. They will be able to breach the walls of their ghettoes and go job-hunting, albeit with zero skills.

“Because of that,” Perry said, “Lapid [the finance minister] gave Bennett [head of Habayit Hayehudi] half-a-billion shekels [about $143 million] for professional training. We thought of that, too.”

The draft-law saga will end officially in about two weeks, in the Knesset plenum. That will be the signal for the launch of Yesh Atid’s comeback campaign. In the past year, the party lost the support of half its constituency in the polls. The past few weeks have seen signs of recovery. Lapid has learned some lessons. He has stopped writing inanities on his Facebook page, and has started to speak out in favor of the peace process – a subject that was of no interest to him when this government took over. He too has realized what’s important.

Et tu, Europe?

You could only rub your eyes in disbelief at the images sent to journalists on Wednesday evening. Were they for real? Maybe it was a digital hoax? Exactly one week after the horror show staged in the Knesset by the members of Habayit Hayehudi, led by its leader Naftali Bennett, in reaction to the address by the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz – Bennett arrived in Brussels for a meeting of economy ministers. And whom did he rush to meet with? The terrible Schulz, who, in the Knesset, dared to wonder aloud, “and in German, no less,” about the large disparity in water allocations between Israelis and Palestinians. The two met at the request of the Israeli economy minister, and things proceeded in a “positive atmosphere,” according to Bennett’s bureau. Bennett did not apologize, apparently, but sought to downplay the importance of the whole incident.

To begin with, we should breathe a sigh of relief: The danger of a war with Europe has passed. Bennett forgave Schulz. But we can wonder why it was important for Bennett, just a week after he poured fire and brimstone on the head of the EP president and accused him of spreading lies – while his party colleague MK Moti Yogev rose to his feet in the Knesset plenum and squawked, “The German nation is collaborating with those who are inciting to murder Jews” – to run to meet with him, and in Europe, too!

In the past, the rage was authentic. Can anyone imagine the firebrand Geula Cohen, former leader of the extreme right, stalking out of the plenum and a week later boarding a plane so she could hobnob with the object of her wrath?
What it boils down to is that Bennett is pragmatic, on the one hand, and childish on the other. When he loses it, he flares up quickly, but then he calms down and comes to his senses just as quickly. The same thing happened a few weeks ago, when he accused Netanyahu of losing his moral compass in the wake of the prime minister’s ostensible agreement to leave Jews under Palestinian sovereignty in the territories. Three days later, he apologized, for fear he would be fired.

Bennett’s conciliatory meeting with Schulz, in the latter’s office in the capital of the European Union, took place without the media; one official photographer documented the event. Which reminds one of a story attributed to Winston Churchill. A member of the rival party had hurled serious insults at him in a session of Parliament. An hour later, they met in the lavatory at Westminster. As they relieved themselves, the MP apologized for what he had said. “I’d rather you insulted me in the washroom and apologized in the Commons,” Churchill quipped.

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