President Shimon Peres has told confidantes in closed-door conversations that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plan to trim the powers of the president is “an attempt to establish a dictatorship here” and that the premier “won’t be satisfied until there is an absolute ruler [in the Prime Minister’s Office].”
Peres’ anger and criticism of Netanyahu is a response to the premier’s lobbying his coalition partners to back his initiative which would enshrine into law reduced powers which the president could exercise.
Netanyahu is keen on stripping the president – who holds a largely ceremonial position with little executive power – of the authority to formally assign the head of the largest political faction the task of cobbling together a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu believes he has the support of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni – who also heads the Hatnua faction – and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Political observers now believe that the key to gaining passage of the premier’s initiative is winning the backing of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.
The premier has argued that the initiative meets a key demand that is stipulated in the constitutions of both Hatnua and Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction, demanding that the head of the largest Knesset faction automatically be assigned the job of forming the government following general elections.
Now Netanyahu is applying massive pressure on Bennett. Sources close to the Bayit Yehudi chief say that they would like to see the fine print before giving their blessing to the initiative, although Bennett’s party colleague, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, is opposed to the plan. It is worth noting that Ariel is supporting the candidacy of Likud MK Reuven Rivlin for president. Rivlin, a former Netanyahu confidante, had a highly publicized falling out with the premier.
As for Lapid, the situation remains unclear. While Netanyahu aides say the Yesh Atid chief has already agreed to the move, associates of the finance minister issued a blanket denial.
“Yair isn’t crazy,” said one source. “He has no intention of going for something like this.”
Lapid is currently abroad, and has not been available to Netanyahu, aides say.
Meanwhile, it seems that Netanyahu will have to do some persuading within his own party. This past weekend, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar took to Facebook to express his opposition to delaying or even canceling the presidential election. Senior Likud officials have been vocal in their support for Rivlin’s candidacy, while Netanyahu has urged faction members to drum up the premier’s initiative.
The fate of this initiative will rest with Ariel, Bennett, and Lapid. Who knows? Perhaps Liberman may foresee failure and decide to pull his support before the legislation has a chance to get off the ground.