Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Presidential Parlour Games

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Amotz Asa-El

 

Following a seven-year term in which he rehabilitated the Israeli presidency and became the country's public darling and the world's elder statesman, 90-year-old Shimon Peres is ready to pass on the baton, come July 15.

The politicians, however, are not ready. Nine candidates are vying for the ceremonial but influential position, and the Prime Minister currently appears to have no viable candidate at all.

As the nominal head of state, the president of Israel accepts diplomats' credentials, opens parliamentary sessions, formally asks the election winner to form a government, appoints judges and the governor of the Bank of Israel, meets visiting presidents and prime ministers, and represents Israel abroad at events like state funerals. Other than pardoning prisoners, the president has no real executive powers.

Even so, in a country as young, dynamic, and heterogeneous as Israel, there are moments when the president can be useful, even pivotal. There have been three such moments in Israeli history so far.

The first came in 1973, when the country was traumatised by the Yom Kippur War and then-President Ephraim Katzir - a world-class chemist but a stranger to politics - said, "we are all to blame." Many saw in that quip an attempt to shift some of the blame for Israel's pre-war failure of imagination and intelligence from the culprits to their victims.

Similarly, following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, then-President Ezer Weizman spoke at the funeral in a way widely criticised as pedestrian, failing to bring the bruised public a message of comfort and hope.

Finally, in 1983, following the massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon (at Sabra and Chatilla) by Christian militias allied with Israel, then-President Yitzhak Navon demanded, and secured, the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry. This eventually forced the resignations of then-defence minister Ariel Sharon and the IDF Chief of Staff.

Three decades on, Navon's precedent remains etched in Israel's political memory as proof that the presidency can be more powerful than its formal powers and constitutional role suggest.

That indeed is what the presidency has been during Peres' term, by far this office's finest in its 66 years. Having arrived at the presidential residence during those shocking days when his predecessor Moshe Katsav was on trial for sexual misconduct, Peres not only restored all the decorum and respectability of which this office had been depleted, he also lent it his Nobel Laureate's stature, the prestige of his long and distinguished career, and his grandfatherly affability.

Understandably, the main common denominator among the varied candidates now lined up to succeed Peres is that none of them even purports to possess all of Peres' merits.
The candidates can be divided into two major groups: the politicians and the rest.

The president is elected by the Knesset - since 1983, by secret ballot. Since that year, when one of the candidates was a Supreme Court justice, all candidates have been politicians.

This pattern was broken this past January with Nobel Laureate in chemistry Dan Shechtman announcing he would be running for the presidency. Similar announcements were subsequently made by retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, and by colourful solar-energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, an American-born Orthodox husband of a reform rabbi with whom he raises five kids, including two adopted Ethiopian-born boys.

Refreshing though these candidacies have been in the eyes of the media, all three are having difficulty collecting the minimum ten endorsements from sitting lawmakers required to put one's name on the ballot. Pundits therefore expect Israel's tenth president to be a politician, most likely one of six who are already in the race, but a yet-to-be-named dark horse may yet emerge if things get complicated - which appears likely.

Of the six politicians currently in the race, one seems a non-starter - former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, whose party, Kadima, was decimated in the last election and now has only two members in the 120-seat Knesset. Also a long shot is former finance minister Meir Shetreet, a member of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's Ha'tnuah, a six person faction.

Labor's candidate, former defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, has the backing of 14 of his faction's 15 members, and may therefore manage to reach a second round, in the likely event that no candidate wins 61 votes in the first round. The oldest candidate at 78, the Iraq-born Ben-Eliezer might be backed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for whom the promotion to senior positions of Israelis with a Middle Eastern background is a goal in its own right.

Three candidates emerged from the ruling Likud faction: Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, and former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.

Shalom, at 55, was the youngest of all the candidates and the only one with prime-ministerial aspirations. A Tunisian-born lawyer and accountant, Shalom's candidacy looked like a shoo-in until a former employee accused him of sexual abuse. A subsequent police investigation was closed by the Attorney-General for lack of evidence and because the statute of limitations had expired. While this got Shalom off the criminal hook, many suspect he lost the public legitimacy that a presidential bid requires, particularly following the Katsav trauma. Still, Shalom did not formally drop out of the race until May 21.

Landau, a 71-year old civil engineer, is backed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the rest of the 11 lawmakers that he commands within the Likud's 31 in the current Knesset. Landau is morally impeccable, but as a right-wing hardliner will find it difficult to win votes from lawmakers to his left.

All of which leaves us with the 75-year-old Rivlin, who during his second term as Knesset Speaker from 2009-2013 was thought to be the shoo-in candidate to succeed Peres until there was a major falling out between him and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Though the timing and trigger of that row remain a mystery, it was so sharp that Netanyahu effectively deposed Rivlin as speaker following last year's election, a very unusual move, and one which Netanyahu has never publicly explained.

Speculation in the Israeli media has been that Rivlin somehow, possibly unintentionally, insulted Netanyahu, or his wife Sara. Another thesis is that Netanyahu has a problem with Rivlin's libertarianism and independence - attitudes which have made him oppose some of Likud's legislative initiatives, like raising the voting threshold and banning no-confidence motions that are not backed by a majority of the Knesset.

Faced with this, Netanyahu has tried to counter Rivlin's candidacy in myriad ways, but the harder he has tried, the more the latter's prospects have seemed to improve.

Netanyahu's first hope was to have his old friend and loyalist, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, run for president.The internationally admired former "Prisoner of Zion" would have brought some of Peres' appeal to foreign audiences, and generally made a reasonable president even though his popularity at home, like Abba Eban's in his time, is not quite what it is abroad. However, Sharansky declined to run unless victory could be assured in advance.

After reviewing various other virtual candidacies, Netanyahu seemed prepared to back Shalom, but then the alleged sex scandal made that option difficult as well.

At that point Netanyahu began improvising.

First, he reportedly sought to convince Peres to stick around a little longer. Peres dismissed that idea outright. Then Netanyahu floated the idea of creating a public debate over reshaping the presidency as part of a change in the system of government. That idea was dismissed by his coalition partners, and even by members of the Prime Minister's most immediate circle, led by Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, all of whom insisted the legal process should not be obstructed.

Finally, Netanyahu considered getting the Knesset to postpone the presidential election by several months while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein would serve as acting president in the interim. That too was opposed by his coalition partners.

Worse, from Netanyahu's point of view, has been the reality that the generally affable and good-humoured Rivlin has gathered public support throughout this whole process. The more the Prime Minister struggled to prevent his election, the more Rivlin has come to be seen by many as an underdog, the victim of an unexplained vendetta.

At this point, the joker in the pack seems to be Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid faction of 19 lawmakers. The only signal they have so far made vis-à-vis the presidential race is to oppose Labor's Ben-Eliezer, citing his failure to vote for Yesh Atid's bill for conscription of ultra-Orthodox men.

The chances are pretty high that Netanyahu will at the last minute enlist Lapid, then Lieberman, and finally the rest of the coalition in order to jointly back a surprise candidate, which will then reshuffle the political deck before the scheduled vote on June 10. Chances are even higher, however, that, from July, Netanyahu will find himself having to deal with an opinionated, popular, and potentially contrarian President Reuven Rivlin, who will owe the Prime Minister nothing except revenge.

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