Editorial |

Israel Election: President Rivlin Could Have Made a Different Choice

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Election Day, last month
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Election Day, last monthCredit: Emmanuel Dunand - AFP

“I fear for my country,” President Reuven Rivlin confessed a moment before asking Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government. With all due respect to Rivlin’s fears, the bottom line – speaking historically, not psychologically – is that he opted Tuesday to grant the mandate to form a government to a criminal defendant who has used his power and position as prime minister to evade justice while also inciting the public against the law enforcement establishment, which he publicly slanders.

It makes no difference what ethical contortions he went through. This was Rivlin’s choice.

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Rivlin is trying to escape responsibility. Granted, he speaks loftily, but at the moment of truth, when history put him to the test of deeds rather than words, he failed. “I am doing my job as president of Israel, subject to the law and the court’s decisions,” he said by way of self-justification. But that isn’t accurate. Article 7(a) of the Basic Law on the Government specifies that “When a new Government has to be constituted, the President of the State shall, after consultation with representatives of party groups in the Knesset, assign the task of forming a Government to a Knesset Member who has notified him that he is prepared to accept the task.”

Granted, the letter of the law allows a prime minister who has been charged with crimes to remain in office until a final verdict is handed down in the case. Moreover, the High Court of Justice sanctioned this abomination when it ruled that there is no legal obstacle to the Knesset assigning a criminal defendant to form a government. But in the same session, the court didn’t rule out the possibility that the president might decide, out of moral considerations, to refrain from giving the mandate to a criminal defendant.

In other words, both the Basic Law on the Government and the High Court of Justice left the president room for discretion. The only person who prevented him from “intervening” was Rivlin himself. He could have acted differently, but he chose not to.

Not only that, but the High Court demanded that Netanyahu sign a conflict of interest agreement that he has refused to sign. In other words, Rivlin had legal arguments, not just “moral” ones, that he could have relied on. But he preferred, once again, to be blinded by the letters comprising the word “statesmanship” rather than acting like a true statesman. Out of his great desire for statesmanly conduct Rivlin allowed a criminal defendant, a man devoid of inhibitions, to remain in power.

Even if we assume that Rivlin believed with all his might that he had no choice, he still could have refused to do what he thought the law required of him – and resign. As people do when they refuse to obey a patently illegal order. As they do when they feel in their gut that the law goes against their conscience. But Rivlin chose otherwise.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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