Presidential Politicking |

The Presidency Is Up for Grabs

With the election weeks away, there are only two candidates and no clear favorite in the race.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Reuven Rivlin.
Reuven Rivlin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) has been waging a presidential campaign for months in the teeth of opposition from his party chairman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rivlin has heard repeatedly about Netanyahu’s efforts to find a candidate of his own to run, someone the coalition could support instead of Rivlin. There was an even an unsuccessful attempt to get the presidential election postponed.

The president will be elected by the Knesset on June 14, and at least on paper, Rivlin enjoys impressive support from across the political spectrum in this body. In private conversations, he has said that if elected, he would prefer to remain in his own apartment and report to the President’s Residence every day for work. People who met with him this week said he doesn’t intend to try to fill current president Shimon Peres’ role as the country’s leading public diplomat. Instead, he wants to focus on reducing hostility between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

So far, Rivlin is one of only two candidates who have managed to secure the necessary signatures from 10 MKs to be placed on the ballot. The other is MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), who has also received many pledges of support for his candidacy.

An Internet campaign mounted by Ben-Eliezer’s supporters bears the slogan “Israel is electing a father.” People close to Ben-Eliezer say this isn’t just a slogan; it’s a vision. He wants “to turn the President’s Residence into an institution that will help heal the rifts in the nation,” said one.

Ben-Eliezer is running as the Labor Party’s candidate, but it’s doubtful all the party’s MKs will vote for him. MK Shelly Yacimovich, for instance, refused to sign his candidacy form. Moreover, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid says his party will oppose Ben-Eliezer, because Ben-Eliezer opposed Yesh Atid’s flagship legislation — the new army enlistment law. On the other hand, Ben-Eliezer may well get votes from Rivlin's opponents in Likud.

On Monday, when the Knesset resumes work after its spring break, the presidential race will shift into high gear. Sometime in the next few days, Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction will decide whether to let its members sign candidacy forms for additional presidential candidates. That could help some of the other potential candidates who don’t yet have the necessary 10 signatures: Nobel Prize laureate professor Dan Shechtman, former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik (Kadima), MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) and MK Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beiteinu).

Until now, Lapid has barred his faction members from signing anyone’s form in hope that Yesh Atid would find a candidate of its own to run or the coalition would unite around a consensus candidate. So far, neither has happened.

Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) was previously considered a strong candidate, but his candidacy is currently on hold while police look into a sexual harassment complaint against him. Though the complaint seems unlikely to result in a full-fledged criminal investigation, it remains unclear whether Shalom will be able to rehabilitate his image and rejoin the race.

The bigger question is whether Netanyahu will manage to pull a joker out of his sleeve: a new candidate capable of winning the race. Some Netanyahu associates say he opposes both Rivlin and Shalom, because he fears they might overshadow him as president — and that Shalom might use the job as a springboard to capturing the Prime Minister’s Office down the road.

Several MKs recalled this week that in the last presidential election, Peres won handily despite joining the race less than two weeks before the vote. But so far, Netanyahu hasn’t managed to find a suitable candidate.

The prime minister wasn’t impressed with Shechtman, who “has assailed the Netanyahu government in various forums,” a Netanyahu associate said. Other names that have been mentioned include Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and former ministers Moshe Arens and David Levy. But Likud sources believe all of them would have trouble mobilizing enough support to win, and would never agree to run unless assured of victory.

One Labor MK noted that with Rivlin and Ben-Eliezer both enjoying widespread support in the Knesset, few votes are left for a third candidate. Yet on the other hand, two strong candidates who are liable to split the vote between them could provide an opportunity for a third candidate to win in the first round.

Any such candidate, however, would need to defy the statistical record to win. To date, no government outsider has ever defeated a politician in the presidential election.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. 'Egypt is a pivotal state for Israel, it is vital that we maintain the relationship at any price.'Credit: Yael Engelhart

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