Netanyahu vs. Gantz: Rivlin's dilemma - analysis

Rivlin who has publicly stated that he and Benjamin Netanyahu are no longer friends, may find it difficult to vote Likud in Tuesday's election.

President Reuven Rivlin votes in Jerusalem (photo credit: ESTY DZIUBOV/TPS)
President Reuven Rivlin votes in Jerusalem
(photo credit: ESTY DZIUBOV/TPS)
It’s almost but not quite political déjà vu for President Reuven Rivlin, a long-standing die-hard member of Likud, which he represented both in the Jerusalem City Council and in the Knesset.
After publicly stating that he and Benjamin Netanyahu are no longer friends, Rivlin may find it difficult to vote Likud in Tuesday’s election. If he does, it will be a fillip for Netanyahu. If he doesn’t, he will be disloyal to the party that voted him into office.
On the other hand, Rivlin is also a liberal Democrat who has frequently expressed opinions in that vein that do not always go down well with Likud. Today, the majority of Likud members seem to have abandoned their “Jabotinsky compass” – that is, if they ever heard of the Jewish Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
But that’s not Rivlin’s main worry. His dilemma is based on the possible outcome of the election.
If Likud and Blue and White, in their efforts to gain support from other parties, come out with an equal number of seats based on recommendations by Knesset factions, Rivlin will have to decide whether to give the mandate to form a government to Netanyahu or to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
If he fails to give it to Netanyahu, he will be drawn and quartered by Likud. If he fails to give it to Gantz, Likud opponents will begin to besmirch his reputation, firstly accusing him of lack of impartiality, and then questioning his ethics in supporting a man who, according to most media reports, is about to be indicted on charges of corruption.
It’s not an easy situation for Rivlin, and on the face of it, it’s far from a win-win. His decision in the final analysis could be the pinnacle of his career, or could be its ruination. It’s not a fun situation to be in for a man who has spent most of his life in public service to go home at the age of 81 with his tail between his legs.
Rivlin has less than two years in which to complete his term of office, and if he makes the wrong decision, all the popularity that he has chalked up over the past five years will dissipate.
If neither Netanyahu nor Gantz succeeds in forming a coalition, it will to some extent get Rivlin off the hook, but if the right-wing bloc has the majority of seats in the Knesset, he could just as easily transfer the mandate to form a government to a different Likud leader, such as Yuli Edelstein or Gideon Sa’ar.
Sa’ar was instrumental in Rivlin’s win of the presidential race, which may be one of the reasons that Netanyahu, in a fit of paranoia prior to the April 9 election, charged that Rivlin was plotting to give Sa’ar the mandate to form a government in the event that Likud once again romped to victory.
Denials by both Rivlin and Sa’ar were to no avail, although when he had no choice, Netanyahu appeared to welcome Sa’ar back into Likud’s top 10.
Rivlin’s dilemma is similar in some respects to the one experienced in 1984 by Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, who had to choose between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir to form a government.
Peres was head of the Labor Alignment while Shamir was the head of Likud. The two men were hardly bosom buddies. In fact, they loathed each other. But then again, Peres had proved in the past that he could work well with people he didn’t like and who didn’t like him. Although he and Yitzhak Rabin were bitter rivals, the two put the interests of the party and the nation above their respective egos, and managed to cooperate on most things, simply because they had a shared ideology.
When neither Peres nor Shamir could summon sufficient support for a 61-member coalition, they decided to heed Herzog’s advice and form a national unity government.
The agreement reached by the two sides was that there would be equality on the number of ministers representing each side, and that balance would be maintained with the exception of a National Religious Party minister joining the government. If a minister ceased to be a member of the cabinet, his replacement would be someone from his own party.
It was agreed that Peres should serve as prime minister for the first 25 months, and that Shamir would serve as foreign minister. After that they would switch positions, and should either be unable to continue as prime minister, his party would choose a representative to replace him.
Peres, Shamir and their followers conducted a much more civilized contest than has been witnessed in the present political climate of fake news, groundless accusations, character assassination and incitement.
It will be more difficult for Rivlin to persuade Likud and Blue and White to form a unity coalition, given that Blue and White leaders have stated repeatedly that while they are willing to form a unity government with Likud, they will not do so while Netanyahu retains the party leadership.
Additionally, there is the issue of rotation within Blue and White between Gantz and Yair Lapid. A two-way split on the premiership is bad enough. A three-way split is a nightmare.
Then again, the only certain thing in politics is uncertainty.
None of the surveys by pollsters with regard to the April election were accurate, and some of the smaller parties were given false hopes of passing the 3.25% threshold that did not materialize. The pollsters could be wrong again, and the unexpected could happen.
Far from having the power with which he’s been credited, Avigdor Liberman might be nothing more than a blast of hot air. Whether the unexpected would make Rivlin happy, few people will ever know.
What is guaranteed is that it would free him from the horns of a dilemma.