'Israel Is Not a Rag Doll': President Rivlin Urges Ministers to Cease Talk of Early Election Amid Coronavirus

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visits a police checkpoint in Jerusalem, June 27, 2020
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visits a police checkpoint in Jerusalem, June 27, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

President Reuven Rivlin urged cabinet ministers on Thursday to “stop the talk about holding an early election” after it was reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to promote the move as the country faces a severe economic crisis in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Like every other citizen, I am following the developments in the Knesset with great concern, the repetitive destabilization by all the governing parties of an already fragile partnership,” Rivlin wrote on Twitter.

“I call upon all of you as a citizen like all others, speaking in their name, from their mouths, straighten yourselves up! Quit the talk about moving up the election. Quit discussing this terrible option at this time, and avoid it. The State of Israel is not a rag doll to be dragged around behind you while you feud endlessly,” Rivlin posted in a tweet.

“Our citizens, all of them, need you to be focused, clear, acting to find a solution to the unprecedented crisis to Israel and all humanity. The capability is in your hands.”

On Wednesday, political sources who spoke to the prime minister and people close to him told Haaretz that Netanyahu decided to not pass the budget for 2020 and to call a general election to take place on November 18.

The political chaos Israel is witnessing is meant to prepare the public for the notion that "it is impossible to go on like this," thus justifying another election cycle in 2020, the sources said. Israel held its recent election on March 2, the third within one year.

The sources added that if the coronavirus crisis does not allow the country to hold another election, Netanyahu will still act as the leader of the caretaker government.

Netanyahu's Likud party has called these claims a "Spin by Kahol Lavan officials who are already in the midst of an election campaign."

The witness stage in Netanyahu's corruption trial slated for January 2021 is likely what pushed the prime minister to decide on going to the ballots again. Netanyahu is convinced that ahead of the evidentiary stage of his trial, a petition will be filed with the High Court of Justice to force him to declare he is incapable of governing whilst sitting in the dock three times a week. 

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is likely to support such a petition, which will make it easy for High Court justices to grant it. This is probably the reason why Netanyahu has been recently intensifying his attacks against Mendelblit.

According to political sources who held talks with Netanyahu in recent days, the prime minister believes that an election at this time holds serious risks, but that the alternative is worse. Leaving the residence on Balfour Street and handing over the keys to Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz is out of the question for Netanyahu, the sources added.

Netanyahu's main goal, they said, is to take over the Justice Ministry, which he regrets handing over to Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan, whom he despises. This time around, the Justice Ministry will not be allowed to fall into outsiders' hands again, the sources said. 

Netanyahu's intentions may be read through his conduct on Wednesday. The ultra-Orthodox parties are furious at Netanyahu for not having resolved on Wednesday the crisis over a bill barring conversion therapy for members of the LGBTQ community. Though they’ve directed their anger at Kahol Lavan, they understand what Netanyahu is doing, the sources added.

Netanyahu abstained from the vote and let his voice go unheard on the issue. According to the sources, the premier believes this scrape can work in his favor and help him convince the public that election are preferable to a coalition that is constantly mired in internal conflicts.

He utilized a similar tactic in 2014, when he decided not to pass the budget and fire then Finance Minister Yair Lapid and go to election.

United Torah Judaism chairman Moshe Gafni, who was the first to promote the proposal to pass a one-year budget, realized that he was used for political expendiency, and is considering supporting the two-year budget that Gantz is advocating, according to the sources.  

Kahol Lavan’s decision to support the anti-conversion therapy bill is not the reason for the political turmoil, but a reaction to it, the sources said.  They, too, understand that Israel is headed for another election and are launching a campaign aimed at their liberal base.

A Kahol Lavan official told Haaretz: “If there was a budget and a horizon for this government we’d find a solution, but why should we pay the costs if there’s going to be an election?”

Netanyahu's Likud party has since called these claims "A spin by Kahol Lavn officials who are already in the midst of an election campaign, following their vote against the coalition in the Knesset today," and that the party's "Threat to go to election at the height of the pandemic and the economic challenge is the height of irresponsibility