One of the reasons Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tried so hard to delay Tuesday’s presidential election or cancel the presidency altogether was that for him, the battle was unwinnable.
Had Hatnua faction chairman Meir Sheetrit emerged victorious, most newspapers would have run headlines that Netanyahu’s Likud party had suffered a humiliating defeat. Likud politicians who backed Reuven Rivlin would have been angry at Netanyahu and blamed him for the loss.
The newspapers would have compared Rivlin’s defeat to that of Shimon Peres in the 2000 presidential election, which was the beginning of the end of the premiership of then-prime minister Ehud Barak. It is likely that Barak voted against Peres, even though he was in his Labor Party, just like it is suspected that Netanyahu voted for Sheetrit, even though he publicly endorsed Rivlin.
Now that Rivlin won, the newspapers will run the same headline: Netanyahu’s defeat.
It may never be known whom he voted for by secret ballot in the election. But he seemed to do everything possible to prevent the victory of Rivlin, who has sparred with him for years and who publicly insulted Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.
Netanyahu sought unsuccessfully to persuade several public figures to run until moments before a midnight deadline for joining the race two weeks ago. The prime minister considered former rivals like former foreign ministers David Levy and Silvan Shalom.
He asked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, begged Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and pleaded with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
The endorsement was delivered in a short phone call followed by a short text message to the press, because Netanyahu did not want to meet with Rivlin in person. They were both at the Knesset at the time, and their offices are on the same floor.
When Netanyahu and Rivlin shook hands at Monday’s Likud Beytenu faction meeting, they might as well have been touching porcupines.
There were even leaks ahead of the vote that Netanyahu’s favored candidate was Sheetrit, who was once his deputy in the Finance Ministry.
Now that his nemesis is president, Netanyahu will have no choice but to show him respect.
Rivlin will decide who will form the next government, and it is no foregone conclusion that it will be the current prime minister.
It is also a defeat for Netanyahu because it is a victory for Rivlin’s campaign manager, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is number two in Likud and has become increasingly critical of Netanyahu. Perhaps Rivlin’s win will embolden Sa’ar to challenge Netanyahu in the next Likud leadership race.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman is also a loser in the race. He very publicly and very firmly endorsed “anyone but Rivlin.”
Netanyahu and Liberman will now have to contend with not one but two independent and active presidents. Not only will Rivlin make his voice heard, so will Peres, whose departure from office will only free him to become more vocal on the peace process.
That will make life even harder for Netanyahu, who by not succeeding in canceling the presidency or the election suffered an inevitable defeat.