Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday endorsed his Likud nemesis, MK Reuven Rivlin, for the June 10 presidential election, completely changing the dynamics of the race.
Fearing a backlash in the Likud if he did not support the party’s only candidate, Netanyahu called the former Knesset speaker and told him he would back him. He told Rivlin that he had waited to see the full list of official presidential candidates before making his decision.
“We have been through a lot together in our lifetimes,” Netanyahu told Rivlin, according to the prime minister’s spokesman. “Some days were good, and some not so good, but I hope we will know better days.”
Rivlin thanked Netanyahu for his support. Confidants of Rivlin who spoke to him afterward said he was genuinely happy to receive the prime minister’s backing and did not subscribe to theories suggested by political analysts that Netanyahu was trying to harm him by endorsing him.
Netanyahu’s endorsement is seen as carrying little weight among the 31 MKs in the Likud Beytenu faction.
Although Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman had said he would support whichever candidate the prime minister backed, following the Rivlin endorsement Liberman said he was not obligated to back him because the prime minister did not coordinate the endorsement with him or tell him in advance.
Likud Beytenu sources revealed that on Tuesday night, Netanyahu and Liberman spoke about potential candidates who could defeat Rivlin and agreed that backing the former Knesset speaker was not an option.
Liberman’s associates said his opposition to Rivlin was ideological, not personal.
Rivlin angered Liberman when he was Knesset speaker by preventing the passage of bills that would initiate an investigation of foreign funding for left-wing nongovernmental organizations and revoke the pension of former Balad MK Azmi Bishara, who helped Hezbollah against Israel in the Second Lebanon War. Rivlin further upset Liberman by making his first visit as Knesset speaker to the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm and not to a Druse village where people serve in the army.
Liberman’s associates said he had not decided which candidate to support, noting his good relations with both Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik.
One of the two is expected to face off one on one against Rivlin in a second round of voting after six candidates compete in the first round.
Ben-Eliezer might have been helped by Netanyahu’s endorsement of Rivlin, because it may have shifted anti-Netanyahu MKs in haredi parties from Rivlin to the Labor MK. Shas chairman Arye Deri hinted earlier this week that he would back Rivlin to spite the prime minister.
“It is now more likely that we will back Ben-Eliezer, because he is the candidate of the opposition and Rivlin has become the candidate of the coalition,” a Shas source said.
But a United Torah Judaism official said haredi MKs who intended to back Rivlin still would, because Netanyahu still did not want Rivlin to win the race.
“The only issue we will take into consideration when we vote is what will cause Netanyahu more pain, and that is still Rivlin winning,” a UTJ source said.
Itzik met on Wednesday with haredi lawmakers and their aides in an attempt to win their support.
Netanyahu’s announcement came shortly after Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett gave Rivlin his support.
MK Reuven Rivlin is the best candidate for the Right, Bennett said.
The Bayit Yehudi leader called his endorsement a Jerusalem Day gift to Rivlin, who is strongly identified with the capital city.
“[Rivlin is] a Zionist with values and a good heart. I hope Israel will have a president like him,” Bennett added.
Bennett endorsed Rivlin and said he will recommend that his party’s 11 other MKs do so, though he gave them freedom to vote how they wish in the secret-ballot election.
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach and MKs Motti Yogev, Orit Struck and Yoni Chetboun signed Rivlin’s petition for candidacy, which means that at least half of the party supports the former Knesset speaker for the position.
A senior Bayit Yehudi source said most of the party’s remaining MKs would probably also vote for Rivlin.
“One of the moments in which Rivlin really won me over was in the last election for president [seven years ago]. When he lost, I saw his noble behavior,” Bennett told The Jerusalem Post.
Bennett lauded Rivlin’s modesty and concern for minorities and weaker sectors in society.
On Wednesday, Knesset Secretary Yardena Maller- Horowitz announced the six candidates for president – Rivlin (Likud), Ben-Eliezer (Labor), MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), Itzik, Nobel Prize winner Dan Shechtman and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner – after checking that no MK endorsed two of them.
Daniel Clinton contributed to this report.