Analysis

Election Results: No Israeli President Has Ever Faced the Challenge Now Confronting Rivlin

Rivlin’s duty is to end the Netanyahu era with as little national trauma as possible; the president is doing all he can to carefully extricate him from office, without causing further damage

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Kahol Lavan Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony for late President Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, September 19, 2019.
RONEN ZVULUN / Reuters

>> UPDATE: President Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with forming government as unity talks with Gantz fail

One of Reuven Rivlin’s greatest fears is that in July 2021, when his seven-year term as Israel’s president ends, his replacement as head of state will be one Benjamin Netanyahu.

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That scenario may seem fanciful — after all, why would Netanyahu replace Israel’s most powerful executive position with one that is largely ceremonial? But assuming Netanyahu could somehow cling to power until then, he would be nearly 72. And after 15 years as prime minister, the move to a less onerous job would be attractive.

If he controls the Knesset, he could make some changes in the law to transfer more powers from the prime minister to the president. And anyway, he would rely on being able to pull the strings behind the scenes and control whoever came in his place as premier. And then, of course, there is the greatest advantage for him in the job: The president is the only citizen in Israel who cannot be put on trial while in office. No pesky indictments for him.

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Rivlin knows Netanyahu since the latter was born. Their mothers were both from old Petah Tikva families that often spent part of the summer vacations together. Rivlin, who is 10 years older, remembers the baby Bibi taking his first steps. When UN Ambassador Netanyahu entered Likud politics in 1987, they were in opposing camps: Netanyahu was the protégé of Moshe Arens, while Rivlin was close to David Levy, Arens’ archrival.

But their personal relationship remained cordial and in 2006, when the Netanyahu-led Likud lost the election winning a paltry 12 seats, Rivlin was one of the party’s leaders who backed Netanyahu remaining in charge. It all went wrong when Netanyahu came back to power in 2009 and Rivlin, as the newly elected Knesset speaker, proved too independent for Netanyahu’s taste. And, fatally, Rivlin seated leader of the opposition Tzipi Livni in the front row, next to Sara Netanyahu, at a Knesset event.

We don’t know how Rivlin, a lifelong Likudnik, voted in last week’s election. But it would surprise no one if he were to reveal that, just like other veterans who grew up in the party of Menachem Begin — such as Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and Benny Begin — he found a vote for today’s Likud simply unpalatable. The election result, in which Netanyahu was denied the majority that would have given him immunity from prosecution as prime minister, almost certainly came as a great relief.

The footage from the three-way meeting on Monday evening — the stiff handshake with Netanyahu and the much more cheerful greeting with Benny Gantz — tells you all you need to know. There’s no need to list all the times over the last decade in which the two men clashed: When Rivlin as Knesset speaker, backbencher or president sought to criticize, curb and mitigate Netanyahu’s autocratic tendencies and his racist dog-whistling.

Rivlin is an old-school Betar loyalist, a practitioner of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s “hadar” (dignity and decorum). He is a staunch supporter of Greater Israel and of democratic values, and one of the last to believe in both halves of Likud’s official title: “National Liberal Party.”

Suffice it to say that when Rivlin was front runner for the presidency in 2014, Netanyahu frantically tried everything in his power to block his election — even going as far as to try to abolish the presidency. And when that didn’t work, he called up Elie Wiesel, who was dying of cancer in New York, and offered to make him an Israeli citizen overnight so he could propose him for the job instead of Rivlin.

But Rivlin was ultimately elected and as president he knows his place. His job is to create consensus, not to insert himself into political controversy. That’s difficult to do in such a toxic atmosphere, and Rivlin has fallen afoul of Netanyahu’s die-hard supporters.

As president, Rivlin has twice already conferred on Netanyahu the mandate to form a government, after the 2015 election and this past April. He didn’t enjoy doing so, but there was no question: a majority of the Knesset’s members endorsed Netanyahu each time.

This time, there is no winner in the election. Netanyahu lost his majority and with it probably his hope for immunity. But Gantz didn’t win and Rivlin now potentially faces the greatest challenge of any Israeli president.

He prepared for this week. His staff combed through the State Archives for the transcripts of former President Chaim Herzog’s meetings with Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres after the 1984 election. Then, Herzog convinced the Likud and Labor Party leaders to enter a national unity government and “rotate” the prime minister’s job between them. But that precedent, which Rivlin is clearly aiming for, is still insufficient.

Rivlin’s job is much more difficult than Herzog’s, both on a political and personal level. Peres was not only leader of the larger party, he also had a larger bloc of lawmakers behind him. His claim for going first in the rotation was stronger than Gantz’s is now. Kahol Lavan is the larger party by one seat, but with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the Balad faction of the Joint List not endorsing either candidate, Netanyahu has one endorsement more. Also, Netanyahu’s 55 lawmakers are united behind him — they would all join the same government. Of Gantz’s 54 MKs, 10 are the remaining Joint List members who are not about to serve under him in a government.

But that isn’t the biggest obstacle. Netanyahu is no Shamir, who in 1984 eventually agreed to vacate the Prime Minister’s Office for two years. Shamir trusted Herzog’s assurances that Peres would make way two years later. Shamir didn’t have three corruption investigations weighing him down. Shamir wasn’t planning to use the office of prime minister to shield himself from indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

And despite all this, Rivlin has no choice but to try to get Gantz and Netanyahu to share power. It isn’t just his constitutional duty, or his desire to save Israel from a damaging third election. He understands that Netanyahu’s days in office are now numbered. His designs on immunity and the presidency have been dashed, almost decisively. But Rivlin also knows that Netanyahu will not relinquish power easily and has no compunction about leaving scorched earth behind him — in the shape of hundreds of thousands of supporters who will believe he was brought down by a dark cabal of the old elites.

Rivlin’s duty is to end the Netanyahu era with as little national trauma as possible. He fully appreciates the divisions his old colleague has sown in Israel’s fractured society. Now he’s doing all he can to carefully extricate him from office, without causing further damage.