Rivlin greatest test will be in the aftermath of the elections

Israel’s 23rd general election is set to challenge the president in a way none of his nine predecessors was ever challenged

President Reuven Rivlin pets a koala bear at the Taronga Zoo wildlife hospital in Sydney on February 23, during an official visit to Australia (photo credit: GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin pets a koala bear at the Taronga Zoo wildlife hospital in Sydney on February 23, during an official visit to Australia
(photo credit: GPO)

A president’s reputation will rarely improve as a result of his presidency, observed Thomas Jefferson, the third American president.
That has not been the case with Israel’s tenth president, Reuven Rivlin, whose popularity has only grown since entering Shimon Peres’s large shoes in summer 2014. Of course, Jefferson’s insight pertained to an executive president, who has to run the country and thus inevitably earn rivals, and also enemies.
The Israeli presidency is mostly ceremonial, and the president therefore does not have to earn enemies, one reward that stems from being deliberately removed from the government’s work and the political decision-making process.
Now, however, with his seven-year term approaching its last year, Rivlin’s position is set to challenge him in a way he has not been challenged yet, nor indeed was any of his predecessors, in this institution’s 72 years.
The challenge will in all likelihood emerge as soon as exit polls are announced following the March 2nd general election, Israel’s 23rd in all and the third in the last eleven months alone.
ALL POLLS predict a hung Knesset in which the leaders of both the ruling Likud and the main opposition party, Blue and White, will not win the support of half the Knesset’s 120 members.
The parliamentary deadlock this poses is not unprecedented. It happened in 1984, initially causing a political impasse and public perplexity, especially because Israel was at the time deep in the First Lebanon War’s quagmire, and also in the throes of the worst economic crisis in its history. 
That is when the presidency stepped in and produced an inventive solution, when then-president Chaim Herzog came up with the idea of a rotational premiership in a government that will parcel power evenly by the two rival parties.
The formula worked, and in fact worked so well that the government to which the president gave birth introduced a far-reaching economic reform that a narrow government could not have passed.
It was one of a handful of moments in which the Israeli presidency mattered politically, and in fact helped shape events.
Another such moment came after the September 1982 massacres in Sabra and Shatila, the Beirut neighborhoods where Christian militias killed hundreds of Palestinians during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Shaken and fuming, then-president Yitzhak Navon publicly demanded the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry.  
Though he hailed from the Labor Party and later was also Labor’s education minister, Navon had a relationship of mutual respect with then-prime minister Menachem Begin. That included, most memorably, traveling in 1980 to Egypt for a formal visit as President Anwar Sadat’s guest, and thus helping consolidate the newborn peace agreement between the two countries.
 
However, after hearing Begin belittle the news from Lebanon by saying it was about “gentiles who killed gentiles,” the president decided to challenge the prime minister and announce his demand. Navon’s intervention tipped the scales. The government established the judicial commission as Navon demanded, and thus triggered the chain reaction that resulted in Begin’s resignation the following year.
The situation Navon faced was different from the one his successor Herzog tackled. The former was about the parliamentary system’s mechanics; the latter pitted the judiciary against the executive branch.
Two other presidents, Ephraim Katzir and Ezer Weizman, faced a third type of historic challenge, when history demanded of them to offer inspiration and hope in moments of acute national perplexity.
Katzir, a world-renowned biophysicist from the Weizmann Institute, was a soft-spoken academic with no political background, who was installed in his position by Golda Meir in the hope of earning Israel prestige abroad. His presidency’s challenge,
however, proved to be at home, when Israeli society was overwhelmed and demoralized by the Yom Kippur War, of which he said soon after the ceasefire, “We are all to blame.” That quip came across as denialist, aloof, and part of the political establishment’s failure to assume responsibility for the bloody war that caught Israel off guard. 
Ezer Weizman’s failure happened in November 1995, following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. With the nation shocked and torn, Weizman’s task was to offer a sense of solace, purpose, and healing. He failed in this test, when he delivered a eulogy at Rabin’s funeral, in the presence of a battery of world leaders, which many saw as detached and pedestrian.
This, then, is the presidential record of handling and mishandling historic situations.
Rivlin’s prospective task, after meeting all elected parties and taking stock of the election’s inconclusive result, will include all three aspects of this history – the political, the legal, and the inspirational.
POLITICALLY, the precedent set by Herzog, of coaxing the two big parties to cohabitate, will be imperative. This is indeed what Rivlin attempted last fall, when he invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to meet in his chambers.
In this regard, the task is actually simpler than what it was like 36 years ago, because there are no major disputes between the two parties on any urgent issue.
Back in 1984, Likud and Labor bickered daily over the war in Lebanon and the hyperinflation crisis at home. Now both parties are in full agreement on the most serious military threat – Iran – and also both preach the kind of compassionate capitalism that Netanyahu, in his current economic incarnation, claims to espouse.
The differences lie in nuance. On Gaza, for instance, Blue and White says it will not transfer cash to Hamas’s leaders, as Israel now allows Qatar to do. On domestic issues, Blue and White promises increased investments in health, and greater liberalism on issues of religion and state.
These are not meaningful differences. Moreover, many in both parties’ leaderships have worked together in the past, usually in reasonable harmony.
Benny Gantz’s entire four years as chief of staff were while Netanyahu was prime minister; Gaby Ashkenazi worked under Netanyahu for two of his four years as chief staff; Yair Lapid, while serving as Netanyahu’s finance minister in 2013-2015, produced the public broadcasting reform jointly with Likud’s
Gilad Erdan, then communications minister; and Moshe Ya’alon actually represented the Likud as a minister for six years, before falling out with Netanyahu.
A broad coalition is therefore feasible in terms of policy. It is also simple in terms of parceling, following the precedent set in 1984 when Likud and Labor split between them evenly the major portfolios while rotating between their leaders both the premiership and the Foreign Ministry.
The problem, in this regard, is Netanyahu’s personal fate. Blue and White insists that Netanyahu will not be prime minister until he has attended to his legal situation. Likud insists that Netanyahu will remain prime minister as long as he has not been convicted. Any role other than prime minister is impractical, because the law does not allow a convict to serve as a minister, only as prime minister.
Ordinarily, the president would follow such a standoff from afar, and let the politicians play the game regardless of him. Now, however, with the impasse lagging as long as it already has, and potentially resulting again in stalemate and then in yet another stillborn Knesset and premature election – the president will be widely expected to step into the arena and do something.
THE PRESSURE on Rivlin will likely come from the public and the media.
For now, the sense of impasse is generating apathy in the public, which in turn may result in low voter turnout. By March 3, this might transform into a sense of national emergency, not unlike the mood that followed the Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanon War, and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
Fortunately, unlike those crises, this one comes at a time when the borders are relatively quiet, the economy is thriving, and there is little political acrimony in the public, certainly no political violence. However, there is a creeping feeling that the politicians are leading the political system into a dead end, and gradually eroding the foundations of the Jewish people’s hard-earned state.
Underpinning this impression is the unprecedented, and steadily escalating, clash between Netanyahu and the judiciary.
Unlike the previous election, to which Netanyahu arrived as a suspect, this time he is running as a defendant, following his indictment in January on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three different cases.
Ever defiant, Netanyahu not only flatly denies all charges, but claims he is the victim of a conspiracy joined by the judiciary, Israel Police, and the media, whose collective aim is to unseat him.
Outlandish though this sounds to many – the key figures behind Netanyahu’s indictment, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and former police commissioner Roni Alsheikh, were his own appointments and hail from right-wing families (the former’s father was a member of Menachem Begin’s Irgun underground, and the latter was raised in ultra-nationalist Kiryat Arba outside Hebron) – it is Likud’s line.
With all of them towing this line, Likud’s ministers and lawmakers say, in one voice, that the law in Israel allows a prime minister to continue serving even after indicted, and in fact even after convicted, until faced with an unappealable conviction.
Moreover, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who was appointed after, and in the wake of, Attorney General Mandelblit’s decision to indict Netanyahu, has challenged the General Prosecution to a fight, which expands Netanyahu’s already raging battle with the judiciary.
Ohana made his move following State Attorney Shai Nitzan’s retirement last December.
Ordinarily, the office, which is second in the prosecution’s hierarchy after the Attorney General, is filled by an attorney handpicked by the Attorney General and approved by the Justice minister. Ohana, however, reversed this norm, ultimately imposing on Mandelblit a candidate of his own, a subordinate of Mandelblit’s called Dan Eldad who oversaw economic prosecution.
Eldad is for now Acting State Attorney, because the interim government cannot make permanent appointments for such senior positions. However, pundits believe that if Netanyahu retains the premiership, he will make the appointment permanent and use it to launch an investigation into his indictment process, and thus potentially hammer at the public’s trust in the prosecution.
This, then, is the legal dimension of what Rivlin may face on the morning of March 3.
Rivlin will thus face three alternative courses of action.
First, he can try to persuade Blue and White to retreat from its ultimatum, and agree to Netanyahu’s inclusion in the government, say as foreign minister, and at the same time propose that this be accompanied by new legislation.
Secondly, as a respected Likud veteran, Rivlin can try to convince its ministers to have Netanyahu step aside until his legal situation clears. Such a course of action can also include an attempt by Rivlin to have Supreme Court President Esther Hayut make the judiciary deliver Netanyahu’s verdict by a set deadline.
Lastly, Rivlin might unilaterally refuse to task Netanyahu with forming a government, and thus create a rule that an indicted lawmaker cannot become prime minister, thereby paving the way for a narrow, Gantz-led government that might later be joined by Likud. 
The odds that Rivlin will solve the crisis, or indeed emerge from it more popular than he enters it – are even, at best. However, if he does manage to untie Israeli politics’ Gordian Knot, the president whose main asset has been affability, may end up recalled as the surgeon Israel’s political illness has come to beg.