O Presidential Candidate, Where Art Thou?

Netanyahu's obsession with Reuven Rivlin has achieved tsunami proportions. As the presidential elections draw nearer, it has also left casualties in its wake.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, right, in 2012.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, right, in 2012. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

People who have worked with Benjamin Netanyahu over the years in the various positions he’s held talk about a phenomenon known as the “Sunday effect.” Say there’s an issue pending that requires a decision. Say the prime minister mulls it over and decides. Then the weekend arrives. On Friday-Saturday he’s home with the missus. A pressure cooker, confidants say; a refuge of relaxation and contemplation, Netanyahu would probably say. Then Sunday he shows up at the office, and what was decided earlier is out. He’s clicked Start Over.

That seems to be what happened in connection with the presidential candidacy of Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom. While the police were investigating charges of sexual harassment against Shalom, Netanyahu showed model behavior, calling and asking how he was, for example. He even hugged Shalom after a cabinet meeting, to the surprise of the other ministers, who are not used to seeing shows of affection by their alienated and suspicious leader.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu and Shalom held a warm, positive meeting and even discussed the way they imagine the working relationship between the president and the prime minister. On Saturday, MK Yariv Levin, chairman of the Likud Knesset faction and of the coalition, called Shalom to ask, on behalf of the prime minister, whether he was “determined” to run. “Definitely,” Shalom replied, surprised.

This past Monday at 9 A.M., he and Netanyahu met again, supposedly to finalize the deal. But this time the music was different: Shalom felt the previous warmth had been replaced by frostiness and doubt. Netanyahu said something about how all pretenders to the crown in Likud were afraid that Shalom would resign as president in midterm to run against them for leadership of the party, in the post-Netanyahu period. “That won’t happen,” Shalom said. “I will serve out the full seven-year term.”

Shalom then went to the Knesset. An hour passed, and then a report appeared on the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office – oops, sorry, I mean on the site of the freebie Israel Hayom – stating that Netanyahu would not support Shalom, and therefore neither would Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or his party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Finis.

There are some who think Shalom didn’t want to run anyway, to avoid opening Pandora’s boxes connected to him, and that Netanyahu’s eventual refusal to back him played into Shalom’s hands, or was even requested by him. “Shalom set conditions,” says a source in Likud. “He wanted Bibi’s backing, and for Lieberman and [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid to garner votes for him. But, he didn’t want to run.”

Be that as it may, Sara Netanyahu wants to see a humble, low-profile woman in the President’s Residence – not someone like Judy Shalom Nir Mozes, the queen of Twitter. That explains why approaches were made to Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, former Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, former Foreign Minister David Levy and others who meet the criteria.

Now Shalom has been stung by Bibi, and the minister for regional development and development of the Negev and Galilee (Shalom’s other portfolios) is surely saying to himself: “What an idiot I am. How could I fall into that trap? After all, Netanyahu would never support anyone who’s not Yuval Steinitz or Gilad Erdan.”

If the theory is wrong that Netanyahu tried to give Shalom an easy way out, then we can sit back and get ready for the return of the cold war, to join the scalding-hot war already underway between Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Rivlin obsession

The problem the Netanyahus have with the Rivlins is not related to Nechama, Reuven Rivlin’s wife. The problem is the husband. Sara’s and Bibi’s obsession with him has achieved tsunami proportions. The world’s busiest prime minister has devoted hours of discussion, most of them in his official residence, to how to scuttle Rivlin’s candidacy. Always present during these talks is the lady herself, along with a few Netanyahu loyalists.

Many people are wondering what the root is of Bibi’s revulsion of “Rubi” Rivlin. True, there were problems, but they didn’t get close to Netanyahu’s past clashes with Silvan Shalom. One possible explanation relates to a comment Rivlin once made in a private meeting, in which he attributed to Sara Netanyahu extraordinary input in her husband’s decision-making.

And there’s more. A little digging among aides to the prime minister takes us back to May 9, 2012, to the Knesset session that addressed the surprising co-option of the Kadima party, led by Shaul Mofaz, to the previous Netanyahu government. It was the usual tense and tempestuous debate. The opposition on both the right and left went wild. MKs demanded that Netanyahu declare that besides the terse, truncated coalition agreement he had submitted, there be no secret oral, under-the-table agreements between him and Mofaz.

Netanyahu was stressed. Not wanting to lie to the Knesset, he started to get tangled up in his words. He expected Knesset Speaker Rivlin to come to his rescue. But Rivlin insisted on hearing an unequivocal declaration. Long, unpleasant moments passed before Netanyahu made his declaration, the vote was taken, the co-option passed, Kadima joined the coalition and Mofaz was appointed vice prime minister. For two months.

The prime minister’s circle, then and today, remember that Knesset session as a dramatic turning point in Bibi-Rubi relations. Until then, the two had had routine confrontations, such as every prime minister has with the Speaker, from Ehud Olmert and Dalia Itzik, to Ariel Sharon and Rivlin, Ehud Barak and Avraham Burg and so on. But Netanyahu described that event as nothing less than one of “public and humiliating abuse” against him by Rivlin. Since then, the already complex relations – which stemmed from the fact that Netanyahu viewed the position of Speaker as an executive branch of government, and was grievously disappointed to discover that Rivlin espoused a different approach – have never been the same.

Kingdom of David

There was no one in Israeli politics who insulted Netanyahu and was more insulted in return than David Levy. (Well, maybe Ariel Sharon.) The clashes between them were vicious, rife with hatred. In 1993, when the two contested the Likud leadership, Netanyahu branded his veteran rival as “surrounded by criminals.” (This was against the background of the “hot videotape,” supposedly in Levy’s possession, that provoked Netanyahu to go on television and admit to having had an extramarital affair.)

So the notion that Levy, of all people, is the deus ex machina, the anti-rubi-otics that Netanyahu is after to block Rivlin’s path to the presidency, is almost fantastical. The prime minister’s guiding principle, after all, is to find himself a convenient, cordial and obedient head of state. That is the polar opposite of Levy. Throughout his political career, the former construction worker who with his own hands built up his status as a popular leader, has zealously guarded his independence and above all his honor. From the moment he would cross the threshold of the Presidential Residence, Levy would probably spend every waking moment thinking of ways to show the prime minister who’s the boss, numero uno.

Netanyahu could have lived with that, perhaps. But he was induced to drop the idea of taking Levy out of mothballs thanks to simple arithmetic: The pensioner from Beit She’an has no chance of getting the needed votes, not from Likud and not from broad sectors of the House, most of whose current denizens have never even exchanged a word with him. The only votes he can be sure of would likely be from most of the Yisrael Beiteinu MKs and maybe a few salient Rivlin haters in Likud, along with, obviously, half of Shas. No more than 20 votes, give or take.

The bottom line: Netanyahu is still looking for a candidate. Desperately. And he will go on doing so until the registration deadline, this Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the leading candidates are Rivlin and Labor MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) falls between the cracks. Dalia Itzik’s presence is palpable, but if she’d expected Shalom’s supporters to turn to her, she now sees they are more inclined to back Rivlin. Also seeking the presidential post are Prof. Dan Shechtman and retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner. The latter said she was in the race “to show Israel’s beautiful face,” as though the other contestants represent its ugly face.

Safe bet

The routine brawl over the defense budget breaks out every year as summer is ushered in, accompanied by the same threats and scares. This year, though, the rhetoric seems to be more heated, the nerves more frayed and the feeling of crisis in the defense establishment more acute. If this how the brawlers sound in May, it’s scary to think how far things will deteriorate in July-August, when the government is set to discuss the actual budget framework. Will Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon strip each other naked on the cabinet table, as Ariel Sharon, agriculture minister in the Begin government, threatened to do to the deputy prime minister, Yigael Yadin, some 40 years ago?

One thing is clear: In this realm, losing, giving up or caving in is not an option for the finance minister. Politically, for him – if one sets the economics aside, for the moment – this is a do-or-die moment. The way the coalition is looking now, there’s a fair chance the 2015 budget will be the last one the Netanyahu government will be submitting to the Knesset.

If toward the end of the year, when the budget is approved, the public senses that Lapid is again shunning the middle class and again reneging on his promises to do well by the people – he will probably not have much of a future in politics. During the past year, he has paid steep prices for mistakes, the most critical of which involved being pushed into taking the finance portfolio against his will. Then came the series of pratfalls caused by his uncontrollable prattle on Facebook.

But nothing has caused Lapid greater damage among his constituency than the sense of betrayal and abandonment they felt when they discovered, to their misfortune, that after all the celebrations and speeches, they were left with less money in their pockets than before.

The numbers speak about a pit that is 18-billion shekels ($5.17 billion) deep. To fill it, ministries will have to have their budgets slashed, and taxes will have to be raised – the edict the middle class hates most, because the effect is felt immediately in their bank balances. Lapid has undertaken solemnly not to raise taxes. Where, then, will the money come from? How much more can he cut education, health and welfare? There’s big money there, but all three of those ministries are held by people from his Yesh Atid party. They are also the ministries in which every cut directly and mortally wounds every person.

That leaves the defense budget. That’s where the treasure is. But Ya’alon is no longer willing to meet the Finance Ministry halfway, as he did last year. With every passing day, he is ratcheting up the decibel level of his complaints.

The person who will make the ultimate decision in this case will be, as always, the person who hates to make decisions: Both Lapid and Ya’alon are expecting the prime minister’s backing. Netanyahu’s heart is with defense but his head is deep in politics. He knows that if he decides against the treasury, Lapid will seize the opportunity to slam the door behind him without any pangs of conscience and without looking back. Maybe deep down, he’s even awaiting that opportunity.

So, we can bet that the compromise that will be found will be one that will make it possible for Lapid to declare victory. Ya’alon will have to wait until later in the year to get back, clandestinely and via the back door, what was taken from him.

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