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Netanyahu Vs. the President—of Israel

 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is a man of contradictions and a bitter rival of the prime minister’s. He is set to make a call that will determine the country’s future—and Netanyahu’s political career.

 

The man who will ultimately determine who Israel’s next prime minister will be will get zero votes in the national elections on Tuesday. He is not running for office and no longer sits in parliament.Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, elected Israel’s 10th president eight months ago, now holds a largely ceremonial office and is no longer part of the legislature. Indeed, he has few key powers—but he’s about to exercise his most important one.

A popular political hawk from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party for some 30 years, he was a bitter rival of the incumbent Israeli leader and falls to his right. He was a fierce opponent of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, remains firmly against the creation of a Palestinian state, and is a staunch defender of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Despite his unabashed nationalism, he also may be Israel’s most vocal and highest-ranking critic of anti-Arab racism and discrimination, a province generally left to Arab and left-wing politicians. Before he was president, as speaker of the Israeli parliament, he routinely voted against bills he deemed anti-democratic and harmful to Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population.

After the votes are counted on March 17, Rivlin will meet with the head of each party to receive his or her recommendation for prime minister, and will then decide which party leader to tap to assemble a coalition. Rivlin has already indicated that he will confer the task on the leader with the best prospects of forming a coalition and not necessarily the party with the highest number of seats.

This is good news and bad news for Netanyahu, who seeks a fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. His ruling Likud party is falling behind in the polls but he retains the best chance of assembling a stable coalition. The Likud and its biggest rival, the center-left Zionist Union party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former chief negotiator with the Palestinians, have been running neck and neck in recent weeks, but a most recent poll put the Likud at up to four seats behind its main opponent.

However, the ruling party still has more natural allies among the far-right, center-right and religious parties and should still have an easier time than the Zionist Union assembling the 61 mandates out of 120 needed for a majority.

But in the event of a close race, Rivlin is expected to call for a unity government, a nightmare scenario for Netanyahu who in a recent TV interview ruled out the option. Just three months ago Netanyahu called for early elections, claiming he was unable to govern due to ideological differences with his coalition partners, including Livni. In a unity government, Likud is set to weaken further and Netanyahu may regret the day he decided to dissolve Israel’s 19th Knesset less than two years after it took office.

In a widely quoted but unconfirmed TV report, Rivlin is said to have indicated that he would ask the would-be unity government to push through legislation on electoral reform to amend the current system by which large parties must court smaller parties, often with opposing perspectives, to cobble together a coalition. We want to avoid “turning into Italy,” Rivlin is reported to have told a group of visitors, where elections are held even more often than in Israel.

 

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