An indecent proposal

Why Rivlin’s proposal to change Israeli parliamentary democracy does more harm than good.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to a nomination ceremony at the President's residency in Jerusalem September 25, 2019 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to a nomination ceremony at the President's residency in Jerusalem September 25, 2019
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
President Reuven Rivlin has overseen Israel’s political arena for five years now, a mostly ceremonial role which he has performed with considerable grace. Something of a spokesperson for Diaspora Jewry, and certainly its bridge with Israel, Rivlin has certainly shed his Likud Party colors to emerge as one of the more popular cross-party figures in Israeli current affairs. Given his moderate presidential record, this defender of democracy would be advised to proceed with caution at this latest juncture.
The current dilemma is a unique one. As president, its Rivlin’s job to interpret the results of Israel’s recent election, and to offer one of the elected officials to form a government.
There are 120 seats in Israel’s Knesset (Parliament), but no single party has ever achieved a majority, which means that the president consults with any number of members and party leaders to decide who the likely prime minister will be. With Netanyahu’s Likud at 32 seats, and his likeliest rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White at 33 seats, Rivlin’s decision might look like a simple one, but there is plenty more to be considered. Once you size up the relative weight of each party’s ideological faction – even amid reports that Blue and White has artificially reduced its numbers for strategic purposes – the road to any majority looks almost impossible.
Enter Rivlin. When he announced that he would be offering Netanyahu the opportunity to form Israel’s next government, he suggested a new legal parliamentary power-sharing mechanism. The president’s intention is to encourage potential coalition partners to serve alongside Netanyahu, who likely faces indictment in the coming months on corruption charges. In Rivlin’s proposed solution, an elected deputy prime minister would be a long-term acting replacement for prime ministers who are no longer able to perform their duties. The upshot is that an indicted Netanyahu could still have his prime ministerial title, even if power in the Knesset shifts away from his minority and into the hands of Gantz.
A creative ploy, Rivlin’s gambit might yet be successful. A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggests that 64% of Jewish Israelis favor a so-called “unity government,” which Rivlin’s proposal seems to satisfy, rather than a third cycle of elections. Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself seems to be strengthening his personal grip on the Likud, taking steps to curtail any other MK from his own party who might have his or her eyes on the highest office.
But that intransigence is where the problem lies in Rivlin’s proposed law change. By inviting Netanyahu to lead Israel’s 22nd Knesset, the president is playing fast and loose with constitutional convention – willing to extend powers, titles and immunities for the ego of a man who has governed Israeli for almost 20% of the country’s 70-year history. It is decisions like these which prompted The New York Times to print a story earlier this year under the headline, “It’s Netanyahu’s Israel Now.”
Indeed, given the prime minister’s willingness to erode the democracy that empowered him should be troubling to Rivlin, whose duty it must be to uphold the sovereignty of Israel’s voters. Netanyahu has consistently broken electoral law by campaigning on polling days, including his infamous 2015 call-to-arms, in which he complained that Arab voters were heading to polling stations “in droves.” This year, Facebook were forced to suspend Netanyahu for his last-minute online appearances and messaging, which breached its policy on hate speech, as well as provoking complaints from Israel’s Central Elections Committee. On more than one occasion in the past five years, Netanyahu’s actions have even stirred the impartial Rivlin from his mostly ceremonial role, causing him to descend into the foray of political life to condemn the prime minister’s “unacceptable remarks.”
In a country accustomed to a “Rak Bibi” (“Only Bibi Netanyahu”) way of life, Rivlin should be reluctant to reward the man who insists on playing hardball with Israel’s electorate. If Rivlin’s proposal does succeed, and Netanyahu is permitted to continue to challenge the democratic institutions that elected him, then the president’s plan does not show the creative response that he thinks is required. Instead, the proposal demonstrates a dangerous lack of imagination in a country which can barely remember life under another leader. It really is Netanyahu’s Israel now.
The writer is a freelance writer who currently lives in London, UK. He has previously directed a range of programs in the British Jewish community.