Netanyahu’s presidency gambit: A sign of fear?

Netanyahu’s presidency gambit: A sign of fear?

The PM's push to weaken the presidency could have been a savvy political move -- if it didn't look so desperate and disheveled

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Benjamin Netanyahu during a memorial ceremony marking Memorial Day on May 5, 2014 at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. To his right are Shimon Peres and Yuli Edelstein. (photo credit: AFP/POOL/JIM HOLLANDER)
Benjamin Netanyahu during a memorial ceremony marking Memorial Day on May 5, 2014 at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. To his right are Shimon Peres and Yuli Edelstein. (photo credit: AFP/POOL/JIM HOLLANDER)

It’s hard to think of a recent prime ministerial initiative more universally panned and derided than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current efforts to reform – or perhaps abolish – the presidency.

Prime Minister’s Office officials won’t speak on record about the measure, but multiple reports have leaked from Netanyahu’s office detailing his frenetic, last-minute efforts to delay next month’s presidential vote by six months in order to legislate the de facto closure of the office.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the key actors are refusing to play along. President Shimon Peres, slated to end his term by June 27, has vowed to leave his post on schedule. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Netanyahu confidant who would have to step in as acting president in the event of a delayed vote, announced on Monday that the “various theories in the media about the presidential elections don’t reflect anything I’m aware of,” and promised that “next week,” after a round of meetings with the contenders for the office, “I will announce the date of the presidential elections.”

Other political leaders were less circumspect. “As usual, [Netanyahu’s] behavior was amateurish,” a senior coalition official told the news site Ynet. “Netanyahu does not at this time have the ability and power to guide this process to realization. And he does not have the necessary partners from the coalition. As things appear now, there is no possibility of postponing the presidential elections.”

Netanyahu’s proposal, though still vague and emphatically unofficial, is focused on removing the president’s powers to pick the prime minister after a parliamentary election. Current law stipulates that following an election, the president is required to consult with the newly elected Members of Knesset before appointing one of them to be prime minister. Crucially, if a majority of lawmakers support a particular MK for the premiership, the president has little choice but to appoint that MK to lead the next government.

President Shimon Peres (right) meets on Saturday evening with head of the Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and grants the premier a two-week extension to assemble a coalition. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres (right) meeting Likud chairman Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the latter’s efforts to assemble a coalition following the January 2013 elections. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

In practice, this means that while the people elect the legislature, it is the legislature that elects the prime minister.

Netanyahu is now aiming for this mechanism be replaced by a simpler rule: The head of the largest party would automatically be appointed prime minister.

As this reporter noted last month, while Netanyahu is still the unassailable favorite in any public opinion poll and would win a popular election for the premiership, his position is far less assured in the Knesset itself, where ultra-Orthodox and Arab MKs, centrist doves and others could conceivably unite against his premiership in any new round of presidential consultations.

Netanyahu’s frantic maneuvering is a reasonable reaction to this political reality. After alienating the Haredim with the equal service law, mobilizing Arab MKs against him with the governance law that raised the electoral threshold beyond the reach of some existing Arab parties, and frustrating doves and centrists with the breakdown of peace talks and perceived favoritism toward West Bank settlements, Netanyahu may well lose the next Knesset’s poll to be premier.

No wonder, then, that he is hard at work trying to dismantle the very electoral machinery on which the premiership currently depends, opting instead for a system in which the largest single Knesset list — more likely than not to be a Netanyahu-led Likud — would automatically be appointed to lead the government.

Netanyahu’s proposal has very little chance of succeeding. The prime minister realized his danger too late to follow the regular legislative process, and in his haste was forced to float the trial balloon while away on a state visit to Japan. The result: He now appears irrational and detached from political realities at home.

Worse, many reporters have interpreted his efforts as aimed at denying the presidency to MK Reuven Rivlin, the favored contender in the presidential race who has quarreled with Netanyahu in the past. That narrative has now crystallized into an unsavory image: the prime minister engaged in a mad, haphazard attempt to push through a fundamental change to Israel’s democratic institutions over a petty political squabble.

Once the initiative fails, as it must, Netanyahu should focus his frustration on two parties: the political advisers and handlers who noticed such a fundamental danger to his position too late for him to do anything about it (and who moreover failed to read The Times of Israel on this issue), and himself for believing that a wise response to such a political error, however serious, is disheveled desperation.

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