President Reuven Rivlin was never good at pretense. His face always reveals his feelings. Had he been a professional poker player, he would be bankrupt. When he stood Wednesday night beside Benjamin Netanyahu, the man he appointed to form a government, and listened to him speaking, his head was bowed, his lips pursed and his face radiated infinite regret and, above all, despair.
Rivlin likes ceremonies, but not pointless ones. And the mood at this event was sour, not festive. No happy marriage will emerge from this attempt at a union, only a clash that will probably lead to a third election.
Netanyahu, who had not previously hesitated to libel the president as someone who would do “anything” to avoid giving him the mandate, received it from him (for the third time in five years) simply because common sense and arithmetic dictated it.
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Last week, this writer quoted Rivlin as saying he planned to make a “revolutionary” proposal to the two candidates that would enable them to form a unity government. On Wednesday night he revealed its main points. They involved far-reaching changes in the prime minister’s legal status, aimed at extricating Israel from its legal-political quagmire.
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The most dramatic change was how long a prime minister can be incapacitated, or unable to perform his duties, before being forced to resign. Instead of 100 days, Rivlin proposed making it unlimited. He knows his customer and his immediate environment very well. This amendment would have left Netanyahu and his family with all their honors, benefits, bodyguards, cars, caretakers and housekeepers throughout the trial, which might well last years, including the appeals.
Rivlin did his best, but there’s one thing he couldn’t do – promise Netanyahu immunity and continued tenure as a functioning prime minister under indictment. And ultimately, that’s the whole story: A prime minister accused of crimes is continuing, even after failing to win the election, to hold this exhausted, paralyzed country hostage.
Judging by Wednesday night, Gantz isn’t controlling events, but being controlled by them. While Netanyahu was still with Rivlin, Gantz’s partner on the Kahol Lavan ticket, Yair Lapid, tweeted, “Gantz will be prime minister and Netanyahu will be free to deal with his criminal cases.” Lapid thereby signaled Rivlin and anyone else who was listening that he’s in charge, not Kahol Lavan’s chairman.
Kahol Lavan members said Wednesday night that Netanyahu holds the key: If he accepts Rivlin’s proposal, the door to unity remains open. Netanyahu’s Likud preferred to highlight Rivlin’s plea not to boycott or disqualify anyone.
The blame game has entered a new phase. Meanwhile, Rivlin’s letter of appointment will spend Rosh Hashanah with Netanyahu and then be returned – either to hasten a third election, or to keep his possible successors in Likud from organizing a leadership primary. Even in his near-terminal situation, Netanyahu isn’t giving up.