In presidential race saga, Netanyahu is perceived as capitulating

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's opposition to Reuven Rivlin stems from an acute understanding of the political realities he will face if and when he seeks reelection.

Netanyahu, Peres and Rivlin (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu, Peres and Rivlin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former prime minister Ehud Barak made a rare appearance at the Knesset cafeteria Wednesday when he came to the parliament to attend its observance of Jerusalem Day.
He sat alone, joking that he was purposely keeping his distance from presidential candidate Dan Shechtman’s table so as to not take votes away from the Nobel laureate by being seen with him.
When The Jerusalem Post asked Barak whether he was on the long list of public figures Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had asked to run for president, he responded: “No, that’s a job for grownups.”
Barak’s response was fitting considering that at 72, he is 18 years younger than President Shimon Peres, though the average age of the six candidates running in the June 10 election is 71.8.
What Barak said took on new meaning four hours later, when it became apparent how childish the behavior of our politicians can be.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called his Likud nemesis Reuven Rivlin and told him he would support him despite their years of fighting, but only because he didn’t like the other candidates either.
Then Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called Rivlin and told him he would not back him because Netanyahu broke his promise to tell him who he would support, and he was upset that he heard about the prime minister’s endorsement on the radio.
Now the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties are indicating that they will shift their support from Rivlin to Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Why? Because they want their votes in the race to harm Netanyahu for leaving them out of his government and trying to draft and employ their constituents.
With such drama, it is no wonder the presidency is compared to royalty in Britain. The comparison is usually made to indicate that president of Israel is a largely symbolic post, but Beit Hanassi can also compete with Buckingham Palace for its supply of intrigue, personal battles, and complex personalities.
The race for president has revealed much about Netanyahu’s personality. He does not trust people, he bears grudges for an extremely long time, and he prefers to put off making decisions, especially when he does not like any of his options.
Netanyahu has been likened to a consumer who pays full price for what he could have gotten on sale and then leaves without the merchandise.
He could have endorsed Rivlin months ago, during the time when the only other likely Likud candidate, Negev and Galilee Development Minister Silvan Shalom, could not enter the race because allegations of sexual harassment hung over his head. Netanyahu would have looked loyal to his Likud party, magnanimous for crowning his rival, and smart for choosing the probably victor.
Instead, he looks like a failure for not succeeding in his fruitless efforts to cancel the presidency or draft a celebrity to run the way he brought the internationally renowned Stanley Fischer to head the Bank of Israel.
His reluctant endorsement of Rivlin was seen as surrendering to a politician who is not in his league and had admitted publicly the day before that he didn’t even know he was in a fight with the prime minister.
A Dialog poll on the front page of Wednesday’s Haaretz found that 74 percent of Israelis believed Netanyahu’s opposition to Rivlin was personal, and only 10% thought it was substantive.
The numbers show how cynical Israelis have become about their prime minister and his intentions, because substantive arguments could easily be made for Netanyahu opposing Rivlin’s candidacy.
Rivlin has a history of putting clean governance, proper procedure, and his duty to the posts he has held above party politics and personal favors. That contributed to the deterioration of their relationship.
When Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Kadima in the middle of the night two years ago, Rivlin questioned from the Knesset speaker’s chair how it was possible that a party with 28 seats was being given one ministry and asked if there were secret deals promising more cabinet posts later on. That incident proved that Rivlin was unwilling to go with the flow and let politics run their course as they do around here.
True, presidents of Israel have rarely had real say in deciding who forms a coalition. By law, he or she is supposed to choose a party leader who can build the most stable government. But the voters have usually made it very obvious who they want by giving most of their votes to one bloc.
But the next election could be different. It is likely that a Netanyahu- led Likud could win several seats more than the second- largest party but that several factions numbering many more MKs combined could ask the president to pick someone else to form a government. In such a scenario, Netanyahu would want the president to be loyal to him and the Likud, but Rivlin, despite his own hawkish views, would likely choose a different prime minister.
That behavior is a substantive reason why a prime minister who wants to retain his job after the next election would not want Rivlin as president. It explains why Netanyahu’s opposition to Rivlin was not an indication of paranoia – as multiple analysts have diagnosed Netanyahu as having – but an understanding of his own political reality.
So why did he end up backing Rivlin anyway? His associates said he had too much to lose by not endorsing the Likud’s only candidate.
Netanyahu has been working on rebuilding his political base, taking advantage of the suspension of diplomatic talks with the Palestinians to reach out to the Right and shore up support inside his Likud party. He would have looked bad had he showed up at the next Likud convention after helping defeat the party’s candidate for president.
Losing control over his party could end his political career, when he is still young for an Israeli politician. He received a reminder of that Wednesday when he saw his old friend, Ehud Barak.