(photo credit: AP [file])
As the Knesset heralded the "show of unity" correctly credited by President-elect Shimon Peres for his overwhelming second-round victory, faction leaders Thursday began to count heads and settle scores behind the scenes.
The vote for president is the only time the Knesset holds a secret ballot. It has always been characterized by wheeling and dealing, even though it is impossible to know how MKs actually vote on the big day.
On Wednesday, the secret ballot worked in Peres's favor, with a number of lawmakers who were not predicted to support the perennial loser suddenly voting in his favor.
While most of these legislators said their last-minute change of heart was motivated by a conviction that the elder statesmen deserved to be president, a number of backroom deals also appear to have motivated some of them.
In the Likud, which officially presented MK Reuven Rivlin as its candidate, party chairman Binyamin Netanyahu is looking into suspicions that MKs Silvan Shalom and Yisrael Katz voted for Peres, even though both men denied this and said their allegiance was to Rivlin.
Both Katz and Shalom are interested in the party leadership and, it is suspected, might therefore have been seeking to prevent a Rivlin victory that would have strengthened Netanyahu. In 2000, when underdog Likud MK Moshe Katsav won the presidency, against Peres, it was seen as the first step towards Ariel Sharon's political comeback.
Meanwhile, in Israel Beiteinu, Chairman Avigdor Lieberman is trying to root out a handful of party MKs who apparently broke party ranks to vote for Peres. "The party wasn't really happy that we were ordered to vote for Rivlin," said one MK who acknowledged voting for Peres. "We also were told that the coalition would appreciate our support and reward it... maybe with a cabinet post."
Several cabinet positions, including the prestigious Finance Ministry, are open for Olmert to distribute to his coalition partners.
Another party that may have contributed to Peres's win is United Torah Judaism, which had promised to vote for Rivlin. At least two UTJ MKs voted for Peres, according to the victor's aides. These votes were "bought" by Kadima in exchange for coalition support for several bills of interest to the haredi community, a Kadima source said.
One of those bills may have been the Nehari Law, a million-dollar project that provides equal recognition for the haredi school systems, passed by UTJ several months ago with the coalition's support.
In addition, the coalition chose not to enforce party discipline on several key votes that would have hurt UTJ interests, the Kadima official said.
UTJ MKs denied these claims.
Going into the first round of Wednesday's presidential vote, most factions had promised to maintain party discipline and vote in concert. The factions that had announced they would support Peres were Kadima (29 MKs), Shas (12), and Gil (7), for a total of 48. Rivlin was formally supported by the Likud (12), Israel Beiteinu (11) and National Union-National Religious Party (9) for a total of 32. Labor MK Colette Avital was promised the support of Labor (19) and Hadash (3), for a total of 22.
But during the actual voting, at least five Labor legislators deserted Avital for Peres or Rivlin. Avital was evidently supported, however, by a number of women from other parties, including Kadima's Marina Solodkin and Amira Dotan, and Zehava Gal-On of Meretz. Avital also received several votes from the Arab parties to achieve her total of 21 votes.
Rivlin's poor showing of 38 votes in the first round surprised him. A number of Kadima, UTJ and Israel Beiteinu MKs who had pledged to support him defected to Peres at the last moment.