Lapid Rejects Netanyahu's Move to Push Off Presidential Election

Coalition sources doubt deferring the vote is possible, as too many MKs object to changing the rules while the campaign is already in full swing.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Netanyahu and Lapid.
Netanyahu and Lapid. Credit: Archive
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Finance minister and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid announced late on Tuesday that he was opposed to the deferral of the election for the next president of Israel.

“I will oppose any attempt to delay the election for president,” he said. “It is a constitutional change that cannot be introduced at the last moment and implemented in a rush.”

Likud sources criticized Lapid's statement, saying that he was trying to take revenge on Benjamin Netanyahu for the failure of Yesh Atid to get the chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the public criticism of Lapid's agreement to receive a deputy minister in compensation.

Netanyahu had intended to meet with Lapid and the heads of the other coalition parties on his return from Japan, where he is currently visiting, in order to pressure them to accept his initiative. However Lapid did not wait for Netanyahu’s return and issued an unequivocal statement of his opposition to the move.

The prime minister's associates are now deliberating about how to proceed. The key could be finding an appropriate candidate who would get a solid Knesset majority.

Haaretz is aware of at least five coalition members who intend to vote against the postponement of the election, despite the imposition of coalition discipline, and at least another 10 other coalition ministers and Knesset members who oppose postponement but may not buck coalition discipline to vote against it.

Coalition sources said that if the number of coalition MKs prepared to vote against the move – as opposed to merely abstaining or skipping the vote – reaches eight, the opposition will probably have enough votes to block the measure.

But even if the magic number isn’t reached, many coalition MKs said they doubt the proposal will ever be brought to a vote. Despite Netanyahu’s efforts to push it, too many MKs object to changing the rules of the game while the presidential campaign is already in full swing.

Since President Shimon Peres’ term ends in July, the election had been expected to take place in June at the latest. The president is elected by the Knesset.

Hatnuah chairwoman Tzipi Livni hasn’t yet taken a stand on postponement, saying she would let her faction decide if and when a postponement bill is actually submitted. But all five of the faction’s other MKs oppose the idea.

By contrast, coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi is split on the issue, though party sources said that they, too, expect the idea to die before it ever reaches the Knesset.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s associates voiced confidence on Tuesday that they could pass the necessary legislation. Bureau sources said they hoped a bill could be brought to the cabinet as early as next Sunday. “The bill will surely pass in the cabinet if it’s brought to a vote, even if some ministers decide to oppose it,” one source said.

He acknowledged that passage in the Knesset was less certain, but said it would depend on whether coalition discipline, or at least faction discipline, was applied.

Netanyahu’s associates also threatened to punish any coalition member who votes against the bill.

“We’ll impose iron discipline on MKs and ministers,” a senior coalition figure said on Tuesday. “If Miri Regev votes against the bill, there will be consequences. We could take the [Knesset] Internal Affairs Committee, which she heads, away from her. It’s impossible to be part of the coalition and vote against it.”

Regev and fellow Likud MKs Haim Katz and Reuven Rivlin are three of the five avowed rebels; the other two are Hatnuah MKs Meir Sheetrit and Amram Mitzna.

Those who object to postponement but might not be willing to break coalition discipline include ministers Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Ya’alon, Jacob Perry, Amir Peretz, Uri Orbach and Uri Ariel, and MKs Ofer Shelah, Ayelet Shaked, Elazar Stern and David Tsur.

Netanyahu is particularly worried by the opposition of Sa’ar, who has denounced the idea vehemently on Facebook and is publicly supporting Rivlin’s presidential candidacy. Netanyahu’s associates charge that Sa’ar’s opposition is not high-minded, but rather part of a planned campaign to challenge Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud party. Sa’ar denies this.

One source familiar with the issue said the heads of all the coalition parties “agree in principle that the current situation is terrible. Some think the problem is the identity of the [presidential] candidates, and others think we need to change the system of government. The problem is that our coalition partners won’t go along with us on this move if there’s no clear agreement on the results: Are we going to postpone the election to formulate a change in the system of government, or is the move meant to provide time to find better candidates? And that’s exactly what Netanyahu will try to resolve in the coming days.”

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