Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ruby Rivlin

Dream of Rivals: Why Bibi’s Still On Top

Two terrorist attacks today in Israel have already claimed one life–that of a young woman–and left a soldier in critical condition, in addition to the others less seriously wounded in the attacks. The incidents extend the spasm of violence by Palestinians who have flirted with igniting a full-blown intifada, though the security fence and other precautions have thus far prevented a comparable terror campaign. They also put the spotlight on the Israeli leadership, highlighting an interesting political phenomenon.

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Two terrorist attacks today in Israel have already claimed one life–that of a young woman–and left a soldier in critical condition, in addition to the others less seriously wounded in the attacks. The incidents extend the spasm of violence by Palestinians who have flirted with igniting a full-blown intifada, though the security fence and other precautions have thus far prevented a comparable terror campaign. They also put the spotlight on the Israeli leadership, highlighting an interesting political phenomenon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has studiously, if not always successfully, attempted to avoid scenarios that could be destabilizing to Israeli politics, knowing as he does that governing coalitions are almost always more fragile than they look and that one perceived failure could bring them down. The Palestinians have, of course, not always played along. Case in point: Netanyahu is far more hesitant to go to war than most of his predecessors; this past summer, Hamas made avoiding a ground war impossible.

Netanyahu’s government survived the Gaza war, and now must deal with terror from within–a far greater challenge than calling on the IDF to win a ground war in Palestinian territory. Additionally, Netanyahu continues to deal with fluctuating Israeli public opinion polls and the fact that in the new reality of Israel’s fragmented party politics, rival parties are seemingly perpetually in striking distance. On top of all this, Netanyahu tends to get under the skin of even those who would agree with him politically, and has no natural ideological base since he’s much more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

So why is Netanyahu still standing, and why do the latest Knesset polls show him in the lead once again if new elections were to be held? There are two answers. The first is the underappreciated maturity of Israeli democracy. Bibi may not be well liked personally, and the political scene may feature a constant casting-about for alternatives, but in the end Israeli voters are still keeping their priorities straight by refusing to turn national elections into pure popularity contests.

Security crises often turn into political crises. But the prevalence of security concerns and the failure of the Palestinians to produce a serious peace partner have kept the Israeli electorate fairly steady. Having oriented their national government with security concerns in mind, a desire for a reorientation isn’t likely to produce one: to whom would they turn?

That question leads to the second reason for the Netanyahu government’s relative stability. The Israeli electorate has, as I’ve written in the past, achieved a kind of ideological equilibrium–and it’s one that leaves the left mostly out of the loop. Once upon a time, when the Israeli left was viewed as less naïve and fanciful than its current iteration (Ehud Barak was, after all, leader of the Labor Party just four years ago, though the marriage was by then an unhappy one), you could imagine a swing of the pendulum from right to left and back again in Knesset elections. That’s not the case today.

So where would the pendulum swing, then? In the Times of Israel, editor David Horovitz writes that for those who have really had it with Bibi, desperate times are calling for desperate measures:

So who is this alternative to Netanyahu, considered by at least some in the middle ground of Israeli politics?

Step forward Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and the head of the Yisrael Beytenu coalition faction.

Horovitz notes, with record-obliterating understatement, that Lieberman (whose surname is often transliterated in Israel without the first “e”) “is not a man usually highlighted as the embodiment of Israeli political moderation.” No kidding. He continues:

And yet there are those among the coalition’s unhappy centrists who see Liberman as a pragmatist — at least relative to Netanyahu; as someone who would initiate policy rather than defensively respond, as Netanyahu is deemed by his critics to do; and as the possible key piece of a future coalition jigsaw built around Yesh Atid (19 seats), Labor (15), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2).

As a consequence of various comings and goings in what was the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu slate in the 2013 elections, Liberman’s party now holds 13 seats in the Knesset. If you add in Meretz (six seats), and/or one or both of the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas with its 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism 7), the arithmetic starts to look interesting.

OK, I’ll take the bait. I did, after all, write an essay in COMMENTARY three summers ago explaining how the Knesset math made Lieberman a force to be reckoned with and a perennial kingmaker with his eye on the ultimate prize. But what do the numbers say? Here’s the latest Knesset Channel poll. It finds Likud with 22 seats (up from 19), Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi with 18 (up from 12), Labor at 15, Yesh Atid at nine, Meretz at nine, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu at … seven seats.

An outlier? Does not appear to be. More like a trend. Here’s the NRG poll from six days earlier. It found Likud with 21, Bennett with 17, Labor with 15, and Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu with nine each.

That raises a different question: Is Netanyahu vulnerable from within Likud? The answer there seems to be no as well. Had there been a real chance to unseat Netanyahu as Likud leader, current Israeli President Ruby Rivlin would have been more likely to stay and challenge Bibi. The presidency is a ceremonial role. The premiership is where the power is. And don’t forget that Lieberman himself recently split from Likud.

The palace intrigue in Jerusalem has become noticeably unintriguing of late. That’s because the Israeli electorate has more or less arranged their Knesset representation to manage a status quo that hasn’t changed much either. Bibi is always instinctively looking over his shoulder. But it’s doubtful that when he does, he sees Avigdor Lieberman.

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A Female President for Israel?

As Shimon Peres’s trip to Rome yesterday to play a part in Pope Francis’s pointless Middle East prayer service with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas proved, Israel’s largely symbolic presidency gives an individual the ability to make a lot of trouble for the country’s government. That’s the explanation for much of the attention that is being devoted abroad to the vote that will take place tomorrow in Israel to choose the nation’s next president. None of the serious contenders are well known in the United States, but as a list of contenders present themselves to the parliament, there’s a decent chance that the winner will make history. But whichever one of them prevails tomorrow in either a first ballot or a subsequent runoff conducted shortly thereafter, the odds are Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t be happy with the result.

It must be remembered that Israel’s president has no direct role in governing the country. In theory, the president is a mere cutter of ribbons and convener of the Knesset in the manner of Great Britain’s monarchy but without the paparazzi interest, the glamour, or the history. But if the occupant of the office has the ability to engage the sympathies of the local media and/or the international community, then the Israeli presidency can take on greater importance. As Peres and some of his predecessors have demonstrated, the fact that the president is considered above politics (even if that is not really true), gives the office the ability to make mischief for the government. That’s why, as Seth wrote last month, Netanyahu tried so hard to create the circumstances under which he would avoid having a president who would undercut his policies and even mooted the possibility of eliminating the office. But those ploys failed and as of the moment it appears that the leading candidates are all people who are likely to plague the PM in the coming years. The only question now is whether it will be one who will embarrass him on the right or the left and will it be Israel’s first female president.

The odds-on favorite now is former Knesset Speaker Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, who has the most declared support (31 out of the body’s 120 members have already declared for him) and the advantage of being the leading candidate of Likud, the party that leads the governing coalition. But rather than be happy about Rivlin, Netanyahu is rightly concerned that he will be a problem. Rivlin is an opponent of the two-state solution and a supporter of the settlements, which puts him firmly in the Likud mainstream. But that could be a problem for Netanyahu since Rivlin could use the office to try and undermine any of the PM’s efforts to keep the peace process alive as well as complicating relations with the United States. The fact that Rivlin and Netanyahu are not exactly friendly will increase the chances that their official relationship will be marked by tension.

But as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the more moderate elements of the coalition may line up for any viable alternative to Rivlin in a runoff if no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot. While none of the other candidates who have garnered enough support from Knesset members to make it onto the ballot seem formidable, Gur thinks Dalia Itzik might be just the person to upset Rivlin if it comes down to a one-on-one race.

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As Shimon Peres’s trip to Rome yesterday to play a part in Pope Francis’s pointless Middle East prayer service with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas proved, Israel’s largely symbolic presidency gives an individual the ability to make a lot of trouble for the country’s government. That’s the explanation for much of the attention that is being devoted abroad to the vote that will take place tomorrow in Israel to choose the nation’s next president. None of the serious contenders are well known in the United States, but as a list of contenders present themselves to the parliament, there’s a decent chance that the winner will make history. But whichever one of them prevails tomorrow in either a first ballot or a subsequent runoff conducted shortly thereafter, the odds are Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t be happy with the result.

It must be remembered that Israel’s president has no direct role in governing the country. In theory, the president is a mere cutter of ribbons and convener of the Knesset in the manner of Great Britain’s monarchy but without the paparazzi interest, the glamour, or the history. But if the occupant of the office has the ability to engage the sympathies of the local media and/or the international community, then the Israeli presidency can take on greater importance. As Peres and some of his predecessors have demonstrated, the fact that the president is considered above politics (even if that is not really true), gives the office the ability to make mischief for the government. That’s why, as Seth wrote last month, Netanyahu tried so hard to create the circumstances under which he would avoid having a president who would undercut his policies and even mooted the possibility of eliminating the office. But those ploys failed and as of the moment it appears that the leading candidates are all people who are likely to plague the PM in the coming years. The only question now is whether it will be one who will embarrass him on the right or the left and will it be Israel’s first female president.

The odds-on favorite now is former Knesset Speaker Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, who has the most declared support (31 out of the body’s 120 members have already declared for him) and the advantage of being the leading candidate of Likud, the party that leads the governing coalition. But rather than be happy about Rivlin, Netanyahu is rightly concerned that he will be a problem. Rivlin is an opponent of the two-state solution and a supporter of the settlements, which puts him firmly in the Likud mainstream. But that could be a problem for Netanyahu since Rivlin could use the office to try and undermine any of the PM’s efforts to keep the peace process alive as well as complicating relations with the United States. The fact that Rivlin and Netanyahu are not exactly friendly will increase the chances that their official relationship will be marked by tension.

But as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the more moderate elements of the coalition may line up for any viable alternative to Rivlin in a runoff if no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot. While none of the other candidates who have garnered enough support from Knesset members to make it onto the ballot seem formidable, Gur thinks Dalia Itzik might be just the person to upset Rivlin if it comes down to a one-on-one race.

Itzik started out in Israeli politics as a more centrist Labor MK and quickly moved up in the ranks of that once formidable political party. She served in a number of cabinet positions and then, like Peres and many other opportunistic members of both major parties, joined Ariel Sharon’s Kadima in 2006. During the three-year period when Kadima ran the country under Sharon’s successor Ehud Olmert, Itzik was speaker of the Knesset. She remained in parliament until 2013 and chose not to run for reelection when it became apparent that Kadima would be smashed in last year’s Knesset vote.

Itzik might be able to garner support from both the left and the right if she manages to make it into a runoff. Indeed, as Gur notes, the presidency may well be decided by the votes of the two most marginalized factions in the current Knesset: the ultra-Orthodox Haredim who were excluded by Netanyahu from the government and the Arabs. If so, Itzik may be just the candidate to deny the presidency to a right-winger.

Itzik won’t have the international stature of Peres, but it is easy to imagine her using the office to prod Netanyahu on the peace process, something that would gain her the applause of the Obama administration and other critics of Israel. Being the first woman in the presidency will also give her a following and a stature that would be denied to Rivlin.

There’s no telling how the vote will turn out and Rivlin may well prevail. But whether it turns out to be Rivlin or Itzik or one of the other candidates, after all his maneuvering it looks like Netanyahu will wind up with another president who will seek to make his life miserable.

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