If You Don’t Want Netanyahu as Prime Minister, You Might Get Him as President

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin during a ceremony in Jerusalem on November 10, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin during a ceremony in Jerusalem on November 10, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

A drab passage in the Israeli law book that has been gathering dust is about to inflame the country’s political world. “The President of the State shall not face criminal charges,” promises Article 14 of the Basic Law on the President of the State – and there is exactly one person for whom this article is very relevant.

The election in the Knesset for the successor to President Reuven Rivlin is scheduled for the spring, and at least two senior Likud figures are pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu to run. In June, the senior Kan public broadcaster journalist Yoav Krakovsky reported that the prime minister planned to run. An attempt has already been made in the Knesset to block such a move: In September, MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) submitted a bill that would ban a criminal defendant from running for president, but the ruling coalition voted it down.

Asked to explain the cabinet’s opposition to the bill, David Amsalem, the ministerial liaison to the Knesset, gave a speech in which he described the “lies” of former police commissioner Roni Alsheich. Netanyahu is careful to chuckle every time he is asked about it, but has avoided saying that he will not run.

The questions – whether Netanyahu may run, and if his trial would have to be suspended in the event he is elected – will have to be decided by the High Court of Justice. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that Netanyahu will apply for the position in order to further postpone his trial or in the hope that a favorable ruling by the justices would serve as a kind of personal certificate of good standing. And if they rule against him, it would be additional proof that he is being persecuted unjustly – victimization, a modern-day Dreyfuss.

In any case, if the unbelievable does happen and Netanyahu submits his candidacy, is permitted to run and is elected, it would almost certainly halt the criminal proceedings against him. His trial would resume only after his seven-year term ends, when he will be 79. But it’s also possible that the new president will pardon him. Justification will be found, whether it is his advanced age, his retirement from politics or “his contribution to the nation.” So a decision on Netanyahu’s legal matters could come much sooner than expected.

That is why “concerned Israeli citizens” are already urging Rivlin not to wait, and to express opposition to the idea now. Rivlin has been extremely cautious about speaking out on the matter. We can assume that he is clinging to the hope that Netanyahu will be deterred by the potential pitfalls that a presidential challenge could hold for him: First, it will get Israelis to start thinking about the day after Netanyahu leaves the scene. Second, Netanyahu is currently preparing for the next Knesset (and prime ministerial) election. It’s impossible to contest both elections at the same time. And third, his chances of winning the presidential vote aren’t certain. The conventional wisdom may be that, given that the ballot is secret, even left-wing lawmakers will vote for him, preferring a weaker Netanyahu in the President’s Residence, but there’s no telling.

Netanyahu’s candidacy would clearly cause enormous damage to the institution of the presidency. There have been presidents who have damaged its image, very much so, but a candidacy that is intended in advance to stop a criminal proceeding is something that has yet to be seen here.

Netanyahu’s advisers are less worried about that, and we need to remember that he has never been a great fan of the institution of the presidency. In 2014 he searched frenetically for someone who would agree to run against Rivlin, and offered the job to various and sundry people, as if it was just arranging a job for someone. In the end he tried to abolish the institution entirely, and even recruited Yair Lapid in the fight. Confidants complained about the high cost of maintaining the office, among other things. Those were the days.

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