After months of public speculation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday that he would back fellow Likud MK Reuven Rivlin in the June 10 presidential election. Netanyahu’s endorsement would seem likely to bolster Rivlin’s chances of winning the post for which he is already the favorite, but since MKs vote in secret ballot, surprises are possible.
“We’ve gone through a lot in our lives — some better times, and some less good times, and I hope that [in the future] we will see better days,” Netanyahu told the former Knesset speaker, with whom he has had a rocky relationship, over the phone. “I waited to see the final list of candidates, and as prime minister and head of the Likud, I support your candidacy.”
Rivlin, in response, thanked the prime minister for his support.
Netanyahu’s announcement ended a period of hearsay and controversy swirling around the presidential race. Earlier this month, Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu was aiming to postpone the elections for up to six months, during which time he could push through a law abolishing the presidential office, apparently because he wanted to block frontrunner Rivlin. This idea was quickly shot down by Finance Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, a key coalition partner. On Monday night, the prime minister was said to have contacted heads of political parties in a bid to back Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel for president. Wiesel is not an Israeli citizen, and in 2007, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, rejected a similar offer.
Earlier on Wednesday, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said he would back Rivlin for president.
“Ruby [Rivlin] is the natural candidate for Israel’s presidency,” Bennett said in a statement. “He is non-divisive, a Zionist, humane, a great lover of the Land of Israel, the Bible and the nation of Israel.”
Rivlin is “a sensitive man, a man who knows how to move poeple and how to bemoved.”
Rivlin, 74, a veteran MK, formally submitted his candidacy, as did five other candidates, on Tuesday. He had 16 signatures from MKs formally backing his candidacy, six more than the requisite 10. In addition to front-runners Rivlin and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), Hatnua MK Meir Sheetrit, former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik and Chemistry Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Shechtman also submitted their candidacy.
The president will be picked by the 120 Knesset members in a confidential vote set for June 10. President Shimon Peres’s term will end July 27.
In an interview with The Times of Israel this week, Rivlin made clear he does not support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he also also promised that, if elected president, he would not seek to intervene in the decisions of Israel’s elected politicians on peacemaking or anything else.
Israelis and Palestinians are “destined to live together,” Rivlin told The Times of Israel Monday. But “I’m a utopianist,” he said. “I have a vision that suddenly all the Jewish people [from around the world] will come to live here… And if there were 10 million Jews here, we wouldn’t have to give up on anything.”
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.