When presented on Wednesday morning with the official results of the March 23 Knesset election, President Reuven Rivlin made a little speech that hit a nerve among loyalists of Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu.
“Over the next few days, I will consider which candidate has the best chance to form a government,” Rivlin said. “My central consideration will be those chances to build a government that will receive the trust of the Knesset, pass a budget and heal the nation... I hope our elected officials will be wise enough to listen to the people of Israel and hear their demand for unconventional alliances, cooperation between sectors and professional dedicated work for all Israeli citizens.”
Reacting angrily to what they interpreted as Rivlin’s intention to circumvent Netanyahu – head of Likud, which garnered far more seats than any other party – Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana released a joint statement.
“The president doesn’t determine the results of the election,” they wrote, criticizing Rivlin for overstepping the ostensibly neutral bounds of his role into the realm of politics. “Since the establishment of the state, all Israeli presidents have given the opportunity to form a government to the candidate who received the largest number of recommendations first, and this should be the case this time as well.”
Rivlin was not amused. The remarks by Levin, Steinitz and Ohana “do them no honor, and it would have been better had they not been uttered,” his office responded in a counter-statement.
“As the president had said, the main consideration that will guide him in choosing the candidate to whom he will hand the task of forming the government is the candidate’s chances of forming a government that will win Knesset’s endorsement. This is what all previous Israeli presidents have done for generations, and this is how the president acted in all the previous election campaigns.”
NATURALLY, THE Israeli press pounced on the exchange. In fairness to journalists, there’s not much out there to report at the moment about the coalition-in-the-making. So, each tiny item – certainly every tiff – becomes magnified, lending itself to gossip and speculation disguised as analysis.
In this case, the latter involves a two-and-a-half-year-old theory, which may or may not be true, about a plot hatched between Rivlin and Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope Party, to maneuver Netanyahu out of office. According to an October 2018 report in the Israel Hayom newspaper, Sa’ar, a longstanding and prominent member of Likud, was behind a scheme designed to keep Netanyahu from forming a coalition in the event that the elections planned for November 2019 were held much earlier.
The report indicated that the prime minister decided not to call for an early election after being told by confidants that even if Likud were to win, Rivlin would grant Sa’ar – not Netanyahu – the mandate. Both Rivlin and Sa’ar forcefully denied the allegations.
A few months later, ahead of the Likud primaries in which Sa’ar ran against Netanyahu, Bibi brought up the issue again. In his first webcast on the Internet channel Likud TV, he recounted: “More than two or three people in the Likud [told] me, ‘Gideon [Sa’ar] came to me and said, ‘Look, this is what I’m planning. After the elections, they won’t appoint Netanyahu to form the government, because he’s in a [pre-indictment] hearing, so the responsibility has to go to someone else in the Likud, and I ask for your support.’”
Sa’ar reacted by saying, “Unfortunately, two days before the primaries, the prime minister chose to recycle the false tale he first told several months ago. The goal is transparent: to hurt me in the primaries. Likud members are smart and know that this is baseless. On the eve of a critical election for the Likud and the country, I will behave like a responsible adult: I will not be dragged into an internal war in our home.”
Nevertheless, Sa’ar only managed to persuade 27.5% of Likud members to vote for him, and Netanyahu retained his position as leader of the party. It wasn’t until December 2020, however, that he quit Likud and announced that he was establishing a rival right-wing party called “New Hope.”
The name, incidentally, gave rise on social media to numerous “Star Wars” memes, causing his advisers briefly to consider a different moniker that wouldn’t elicit so much laughter. But they decided to stick with it anyway, which was fine, as the Twittersphere soon turned to other targets for humor.
FAR MORE problematic was Sa’ar’s hiring of the founders of the Lincoln Project to run his campaign against Netanyahu in the manner that they worked to defeat former US president Donald Trump. The thought process behind the move seemed to make sense; the American PAC is made up of anti-Trump Republicans, and Sa’ar was attempting to attract “anybody but Bibi” voters from the Right.
It was foolish on two counts, however. First, the American and Israeli electoral contexts are not comparable. Second, the Lincoln Project is a corrupt organization on the verge of implosion due to financial and sexual scandals. Sa’ar was left no choice, then, but to fire the US team a mere month after putting its people on the payroll.
Still, Sa’ar’s voters probably knew little and cared nothing about the Lincoln Project. Nor did most Israelis even remember the chatter about his supposed conspiracy with Rivlin, let alone cast their ballots with that in mind. And though New Hope fared far worse on Election Day than had initially been predicted, it did pretty well, considering that it had less than four months to campaign.
MEANWHILE, THE hype about the reaction of Likud officials to Rivlin’s statement gave way on Wednesday evening to a different “drama”: Netanyahu’s appeal, on live television, to Sa’ar and Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett to “come home” to a right-wing, Likud-led coalition.
Remaining true to his campaign promise, Sa’ar immediately rejected the suggestion. Bennett didn’t respond to Channel 12’s claim that Netanyahu had offered to incorporate Yamina into Likud, and give it lots of coveted ministries and committees.
None of the above alters what is unfolding as the likely scenario of a fifth round of elections. The accuracy or fallacy of this assessment will not begin to materialize until next week, when Rivlin is slated to meet with party representatives and hear their recommendations about whom he should task with forming the next government.
He is expected to make his decision on April 7, the day after the swearing-in of the 24th Knesset, whose novices must be wondering how short a stint they will have in the halls of parliament. Their concerns are warranted, even if a coalition is cobbled together by Netanyahu, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid – whose party garnered the second largest number of seats – or Bennett.
WHICH BRINGS us to the real reason that Rivlin’s address was outrageous: He had the nerve to assert that the “people of Israel” are demanding “unconventional alliances.”
This is a complete lie cloaked in pretty words born of a fantasy about the creation of a coalition consisting of ideologically disparate parties that couldn’t possibly gel around policy. Indeed, the outgoing “unity” government’s dysfunction pales in comparison to that which would ensue from the current options on the table.
The only exception is a right-wing, Likud-led government that includes Bennett and Sa’ar. Since that’s not happening, no party leader, including Netanyahu, has a viable solution that will last for more than about five minutes, and everybody knows it.
In their desperation to oust Netanyahu, the left-wing parties are willing to go as far as to consider backing Bennett, whom they view as a far-Right fanatic, for prime minister. They and his detractors on the Right believe that once Netanyahu’s out of the picture, the Knesset can disband, and a new election can happily be held, without him in the way.
If Rivlin agrees to take part in such a charade, he won’t be preventing the country from another round at the ballot box; he’ll simply be operating under the pretense that he did everything in his power to avoid one.