Commentary Magazine


Topic: Reuven Rivlin

How to Understand the Israeli Elections: The Likud Civil War

It’s no surprise that a narrative developed in the U.S. media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress was all or mostly an election stunt. The Western press is a long way from understanding Israeli politics. But as news organizations still cast next week’s Israeli election in the shadow of The Speech, it’s become clear their readers are missing the real story of the polls: they’re defined by a Likud civil war.

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It’s no surprise that a narrative developed in the U.S. media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress was all or mostly an election stunt. The Western press is a long way from understanding Israeli politics. But as news organizations still cast next week’s Israeli election in the shadow of The Speech, it’s become clear their readers are missing the real story of the polls: they’re defined by a Likud civil war.

On paper, despite the fragmentation of Israeli party politics, it’s still easy to miss any subplot when the main story has Likud and Labor–the traditional pillars of Israeli right and left–back in a dead heat. But it turns out the Likud vs. Labor rivalry is actually the subplot here. The main theme of the elections has to do with why Labor’s Isaac Herzog is on the cusp of possibly becoming prime minister. There are several politicians instrumental to Herzog’s chances. And they’re all originally Likudniks.

Let’s look at the two scenarios by which Herzog would become prime minister. The first is the old-fashioned way, by winning the election and putting together a governing coalition of 61 or more seats. Just taking the latest polls, Herzog would need to overcome mutual resistance from Yair Lapid and Orthodox parties to sit in a coalition together. But it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that they could. Lapid isn’t interested in making Bibi prime minister, so he’s a natural ally of Herzog here.

All of which makes the “kingmaker” in this scenario Moshe Kahlon, who left the Likud to form his own party instead of challenging Netanyahu within Likud. He has enough votes to make or break a coalition of either side. If Herzog is able to piece together a coalition, it’ll be because the (ex-)Likudnik Kahlon made it so.

Additionally, in such a scenario Herzog would need one more ex-Likudnik: the once and possibly future kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman. Herzog’s coalition would in all probability require both Lieberman and Kahlon to get him above the threshold. It would not be a particularly stable coalition (Labor and Tzipi Livni presiding over a coalition that needs rightists to survive, including one who was recently emitting hot air about beheading Arab enemies, would be interesting to say the least). But it could at least form a government.

And there’s the second possibility for Herzog to become prime minister: a unity government. This would be another Israeli throwback, and in the past unity governments have been far more productive than they might seem from the outside. This is in part because they have so many seats that none of the fringe parties represent a threat to the stability of the coalition. If one or two minor parties bolted the government, the rest of the coalition would barely notice.

So how would Israel get a unity government? The most likely scenario to produce such a coalition would be if the election is so close, and so splintered, that either no clear voter favorite emerges or that no truly stable coalition seems possible otherwise. In such a case, the Israeli president, who chooses which party to invite to form a coalition, would ask for a unity government. In a close election, the president’s mostly ceremonial role finds its one true lever of power. And the current president is Ruby Rivlin, a member of the Likud.

Rivlin is a Likudnik in the classic mold, but he does not get along with Netanyahu, and has taken to criticizing Bibi publicly, an uncommon but not unprecedented practice for the president. Rivlin is reportedly leaning toward a unity government, which is not at all surprising. In a unity government, it’s quite likely that the person to get the nod as prime minister will be the head of the party with the most votes. Another option is to have a rotating premiership. Either way, Rivlin, the Likudnik, would place Herzog in the Prime Minister’s Office.

There’s one more “kingmaker,” so to speak, involved. Herzog has teamed up with Livni to form the Zionist Union. Livni may not be worth that many seats, but even a few will likely make the difference in this election. Livni is also a former Likudnik, though she did not leave over a feud with Bibi; she followed Ariel Sharon to Kadima. And she has built her current political identity around the peace process. So she’s far from the Likud of Rivlin, Kahlon, or Lieberman. But her political background is on the right, and she spent almost as much time in Likud as she did in Kadima, which was of course led by a faction of Likudniks.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been in or near the leadership of the Likud long enough to have plenty of rivals. Some of the bridges he’s burned have been repairable (Lieberman has come and gone from Likud with some regularity), some not. But his non-Likud political rivals on the right, such as Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, are ex-Likudniks. And his electoral rivals who might give the premiership to Herzog are current or former Likudniks. And Herzog would only have enough votes to get there because he’s allied with a former Likudnik.

The splintering of the Likud on Bibi’s watch is catching up to him. In his time in the leadership, Likud has groomed the next generation of dynamic rightist politicians. And they’re now the primary threat to his reelection.

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Rivlin and Israeli Reality

Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.

Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.

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Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.

Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.

It’s likely that Rivlin will not spend much time trying to upstage Netanyahu on war and peace issues and will, instead, devote himself to more domestic concerns along with the traditional symbolic duties of the presidency. But it must be understood that up until the last minute many observers believed that Rivlin would not win because they thought various forces in the Knesset would unite to back an alternative because they could not stomach having a right-winger as president. While the reasons that didn’t happen are complex and largely related to the intricate entangling rivalries between the various parties and leaders in the Knesset, it must also be acknowledged that Rivlin’s win is one more demonstration that the center of Israeli politics is well to the right of where Americans would like it to be. While liberals and others who deride Netanyahu think the views of the popular Peres represent what most Israelis think, the experience of the last 20 years of the peace process have created a new political alignment that means Rivlin’s opinions don’t place him outside of the mainstream.

This is disconcerting for those who would like to believe that Peres, the architect of Oslo process, speaks for Israel in a way that Netanyahu cannot. But even if most Israelis think a two-state solution would be ideal, they know that in the absence of a true peace partner it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The second intifada and the repeated rejections of peace offers by the PA has marginalized the Israeli left even if that reality check hasn’t affected American Jewish opinion.

There is no shortage of prominent Israelis who can be counted on to echo the concerns of its foreign detractors and to blast Netanyahu whenever it will do the most harm to the PM. Indeed, the 90-year-old Peres is expected to try to play kingmaker and attempt to unite the various left-wing factions in an effort to topple the government and/or defeat it at the next election. But for the next few years, Israel’s president won’t be a part of the anti-Netanyahu chorus on that issue even if Rivlin may take shots at the PM over social issues or to speak up for the interests of the settlers. That won’t please Washington and many liberal American Jews. But it reflects the current state of Israeli opinion and the facts on the ground.

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