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.