With clenched jaw and gnashing teeth, great bitterness and the air of one pursued by a demon, Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday was compelled to do the logical thing for someone who, as he noted, is both “prime minister and chairman of the Likud”: Call former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a fellow Likudnik, and announce that he will back him as the party’s candidate for president.
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What forced his hand was a withering attack from Likud members. The anger that had been gathering against him within the party’s ranks, and among key activists whose affection he has recently been trying to regain, had spread rapidly and was threatening to bring the house down on his head.
Netanyahu feared being left standing alone in opposition to a candidate who enjoys almost wall-to-wall support within the party, and thereby lose the Likud. After all, if Rivlin lost the race, Netanyahu would be blamed for the failure. And if Rivlin won, Netanyahu would be left with a hostile, vengeful president and the media would have a field day. Better to cut his losses, even at the last possible moment, even if his family doesn’t like it. The surprising call to Rivlin’s personal cell phone came with no advance warning, about 16 hours after the candidate lists closed Tuesday at midnight. Just 18 hours earlier, in a final burst of panic, Netanyahu had still been trying to mobilize support from his coalition partners to elect Elie Wiesel, the author and Nobel Prize laureate – who, incidentally, isn’t an Israeli citizen and therefore isn’t even qualified to run. If the prime minister wanted an elderly American Jew, why not Woody Allen? At least we’d have some laughs in the President’s Residence.
The conversation between Netanyahu and Rivlin lasted about a minute and a half. It doesn’t substantially change the nature of the race; indeed, it could almost be deemed a curiosity.
Originally, Netanyahu had been expected to bring a substantial dowry: the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, which ran on a joint ticket with Likud in the last election. Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman had promised repeatedly that his faction would support whichever candidate the prime minister backed. Since the president is elected by the 120-member Knesset, Lieberman’s 11 MKs would be a handsome gift.
But last night it turned out that with Lieberman, a promise isn’t necessarily a promise. He announced that he wouldn’t back Rivlin, because Netanyahu hadn’t “coordinated” with him. A lame excuse, by any standard.
Thus the bottom line is that Rivlin gained only one more vote on Wednesday, or at most two or three. The question is how many votes he will lose by gaining Netanyahu’s support – for instance among the ultra-Orthodox parties, who are determined to humiliate the premier by electing the candidate he would most dislike. Now Rivlin will have to convince his supporters in Shas and United Torah Judaism that Netanyahu is just pretending, and doesn’t really want him at all.
The presidential contest wasn’t decided on Wednesday. Not at all. To a great extent, it has just started all over again.