Rivlin apologizes to PM as Likud dissenters tone down criticism

Netanyahu-Rivlin poor relations reached a crisis point after the speaker blasted the prime minister in an interview with 'Ma'ariv.'

netanyahu rivlin 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
netanyahu rivlin 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
After a week in which party discipline within the Likud seemed to be stretching the bounds of unity, fractious MKs seem to be falling into line as the weekend - and budget votes - draws nearer. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin was first among those returning to the fold; he sent a letter of apology to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening. Relations between Rivlin and Netanyahu had steadily declined since Rivlin was voted in as speaker three months ago. The situation reached new proportions last week after Rivlin was said by party members - including Netanyahu - to have caved in to opposition demands on the series of government sponsored bills known as the "governance laws." After a number of lawmakers criticized and ridiculed Rivlin for his decision - as well as for his own well-known opposition to the legislation - the poor relations reached a crisis point after the speaker blasted the prime minister in an interview with Ma'ariv. When Netanyahu was called by the paper for a response to Rivlin's statements, he immediately called off a meeting with the Knesset speaker, hours before the two were supposed to meet. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz weighed in on the dispute, threatening to crush Rivlin's hopes of becoming the next president by sponsoring legislation that would forbid a serving Knesset speaker from running for the post. Katz did not stop there, but suggested that should the need arise, the Likud would sponsor former foreign minister David Levy or Chief Tel Aviv Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau as its candidate to succeed Shimon Peres. But late Wednesday, Rivlin sent a personal letter to Netanyahu, telling him the highly critical comments he made to the Hebrew-language paper were not personal but rather ideological. Rivlin expressed sorrow that the tension between the two was seen as personal rather than as "differences of principles between the head of the legislative authority and the head of the executive authority." Throughout the crisis, those closest to Rivlin reiterated that he opposed "Bibi's attempt to weaken the stature of the legislature in Israeli society." "In the course of the interview," Rivlin wrote in the letter, "I expressed my principled positions on a number of topics, among them the role and position of the Knesset in Israeli democracy. I am sorry if the things that were said by me in relation to a principled argument could be interpreted as a statement or even an assault on the personal level." But it was not just at the top of the ranks that Likud discipline seemed to be falling back into place. Dissent among the party's contentious backbenchers regarding specific clauses of the Economic Arrangements Bill grew quieter - with one key exception. During the party's Monday faction meeting, lawmakers were told that breaking party discipline on the state budget would be rewarded by removal from Knesset committee positions - a warning presumably intended for MKs Miri Regev, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon, all of whom vocally opposed parts of the draft 2009/10 budget. Although both Danon and Hotovely toned down their dissent - but continued to operate through back channels to block the impact of the clauses that they opposed - Regev continued to fight one of the most-discussed and demonized budget clauses - the imposition of VAT on fruit and vegetables. Unlike Danon and Hotovely, Regev does not chair any committee, and continued opposition to the VAT is expected to win her support in key electorate sectors in the periphery. While unsupported by her own party, Regev's stance won the support of coalition partners Shas, with party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef reportedly instructing MKs to pull out of the coalition should the VAT change remain part of the government's financial plan. Israel Beiteinu also opposes aspects of the budget, with Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov crying foul over the plan to charge VAT to foreign tourists visiting Israeli hotels.