How Netanyahu lost the Israeli presidential election

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Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t running for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency on Tuesday, but he’s emerged as the clearest loser after waging an unsuccessful campaign against the man who ultimately won, Reuven Rivlin, and he may have hastened his own political demise in the process.ISrel Flag Icon

In some ways, Rivlin has been the frontrunner for the  presidency for the past seven years, in light of his finish as runner-up to Shimon Peres in the 2007 election. Israeli presidents are elected by the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament.

Rivlin defeated Meir Sheetrit, a former Likud MK who now belongs to Hatnuah (The Movement, הַתְּנוּעָה), the party founded in November 2012 by the centrist former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. On the final ballot, Rivlin won 63 votes against 53 for Sheetrit, who emerged from among four challengers as the chief ‘anti-Rivlin’ vote, attracting support from centrist and left-leaning MKs.

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Like Netanyahu, Rivlin is a member of the right-wing Likud (הַלִּיכּוּד), and he served as the Knesset’s speaker from 2003 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013. In that role, however, Rivlin often stood in the way of Netanyahu’s wishes in the name of defending parliamentary democracy:

The Netanyahu-Rivlin rift goes back to 2009, when the freshly victorious Netanyahu had Rivlin elected once again as Speaker of the Knesset. Rivlin, a tradionalist if there ever was one, soon proved to be much more loyal to parliament and to the letter of the law than to his own party. He stalled nearly every piece of anti-democratic legislation that came his way, deferring votes, sending bills to die in committees and even setting up committees especially to kill those bills he felt impinged on democratic rights. Along the way, he protected MK Hanin Zoabi when the Knesset tried to sanction her for taking part in the Gaza flotilla; elevated MK Ahmed Tibi, the Palestinian Israelis most love to hate, to deputy-speaker; acknowledged the “great suffering and real trauma” endured by Palestinians in 1948; and called for the establishment of one state in all of historical Israel-Palestine, where Palestinians would also have the vote.

The final straw came after RIvlin made a joke about Netanyahu’s wife and her behind-the-scenes influence (oddly enough, that’s one of the reasons that Netanyahu is said to have fallen out with his one-time chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who is now the leader of a rival right-wing party). After the most recent January 2013 national elections, Netanyahu unceremoniously dumped Rivlin as Knesset speaker and started casting about for an alternative to represent Likud in the presidential election.  

Those efforts reached desperate proportions in the final weeks of the presidential election. When Netanyahu couldn’t convince anyone else to challenge Rivlin, he hatched a plan to eliminate the Israeli presidency altogether, which would have required a two-thirds majority in the Knesset that Netanyahu couldn’t reasonably muster. The low point may have been when Netanyahu tried in vain to recruit author Elie Wiesel, an American citizen, to run for the office. Wiesel declined. Netanyahu belatedly offered his support to Rivlin, but it was clearly half-hearted.

Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, once again in government after being cleared in November 2013 of breach of public trust charges, who engineered what’s viewed as a largely disastrous merger of his conservative, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (יִשְׂרָאֵל בֵּיתֵנוּ) with Likud in the 2013 elections, actively denounced Rivlin and supported Dalia Itzik, a member of Kadima (Forward, קדימה‎), the centrist party that Ariel Sharon formed in 2001 and that has all but collapsed with Sharon’s incapacitation and death. On the first ballot, Rivlin won 44 votes, while Sheetrit edged out Itzik by a margin of 31 to 28 votes.

Lieberman and Netanyahu now find themselves isolated within their own government, and they’ll now have to find a way to work with a president whose election they opposed.

Though Netanyahu masterfully cobbled together a third term as prime minister, the united ‘Likud Beitenu’ suffered losses in the last election, both to Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) and to the centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’) of former television journalist Yair Lapid. In the ensuing coalition negotiations, Netanyahu was forced to bring both young rivals into his government — Lapid as finance minister and Bennett as industry and labor minister.

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By pushing so hard, on the basis of both personal slights and political  opposition, to keep Rivlin out of the Israeli presidency, Netanyahu has reinforced the notion that he’s becoming an increasingly powerless lame duck. Making matters worse, Rivlin’s victory owes a great deal to Gideon Sa’ar (pictured above, left, with Netanyahu), currently the interior minister and formerly education minister, who whipped the votes that led to Rivlin’s 10-vote victory yesterday.

A popular figure within Likud, Sa’ar has won the largest number of votes in Likud’s parliamentary primaries twice in a row. Though he’s been the clear choice to succeed Netanyahu for a while now, that moment could come sooner than anyone imagines if he challenges Netanyahu for the leadership before the next Israeli general election. The notion, once conventional wisdom, that Netanyahu will win a fourth term as prime minister has never been in greater doubt. After Netanyahu’s humiliating and entirely self-inflicted political loss over Rivlin and the presidency, it might be Sa’ar and his allies within Likud that bring the Netanyahu era to an end. Moreover, even if Netanyahu leads Likud into the next election, Rivlin’s ceremonial role in the post-election negotiation process could make Netanyahu’s bid for a fourth term more difficult.

Aside from his commitment to parliamentary democracy as speaker, Rivlin is generally a solidly right-wing Likudnik. But he’s somewhat odd among the Israeli right in that he supports a binational state that includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where all Israelis and Palestinians would be entitled to the full rights of citizenship. As speaker, he went out of his way to promote respect for the rights of Arab Israelis and greater Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

So despite the headlines proclaiming Israeli’s new ‘right-wing’ president, Rivlin is someone who has demonstrated his commitment to statesmanship and democracy over ideological and party concerns. He’s also viewed as a man of personal probity and integrity.

In that regard, Rivlin will, like Peres before him, help restore some of the prestige of the Israeli presidency after the fall of former president Moshe Katsav, who held the office between 2000 and 2007. Katsav, however, was convicted of rape in 2010 and sentenced to seven years in prison. That’s especially true after the candidate of the Israeli left, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the Labor Party (העבודה), withdrew from the race last weekend. Police opened an investigation into undeclared cash payments that Ben-Eliezer received from an Israeli businessman that funded a posh new home in Haifa.

It also follows the conviction and six-year sentence delivered last month to former prime minister Ehud Olmert on charges related to taking bribes during his time as mayor of Jerusalem. Olmert became prime minister suddenly in 2006 upon Sharon’s incapacitating stroke, though he stepped down in 2008 on completely unrelated corruption charges.

Photo credit to Miriam Alster/FLASH90.

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