Israel’s Knesset is gearing up for the election Tuesday of the country’s tenth president, who will succeed Shimon Peres on July 27. The 120 parliamentarians are the only ones permitted to vote in the election – though only 119 will actually do so, as MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) decided to avoid the vote altogether and traveled to the United States this week.
That means that 60 votes are required to win in the first round, which will begin Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the plenum. If no candidate wins 60 votes, the two leading candidates will go to a second round, which will take place about 30 minutes after the initial round’s votes are counted. All told, by Tuesday afternoon, Israel will have a new president-elect.
There are five candidates left in the race after a month-long, scandal-ridden campaign that saw two other contenders, Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) and MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), drop out. The remaining candidates are, in order of the public support they have already garnered from MKs: Likud MK Reuven Rivlin (31 MKs have publicly declared their support), former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner (14 MKs), Hatnua MK Meir Sheetrit (11 MKs), former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik (10 MKs), and Nobel laureate chemist Dan Shechtman (5 MKs).
Based on the public declarations, Rivlin would seem a clear shoo-in. Indeed, a systematic count of MKs likely to vote for him, including Likud supporters who have yet to declare their support and others, suggests he may have as many as 50 votes in the first round. And with the other candidates splitting the remaining votes among themselves, Rivlin stands some chance, though not a good one, of winning in the first round.
Assuming Rivlin fails to obtain the 60 required votes in the first round, he will go to the second round, and the big question will be which other candidate will join him.
If one counts the public declarations of support, former justice Dorner would seem the most likely to advance, but this is almost certainly a mirage created by Knesset coalition politics. Dorner’s public supporters, as seen in a helpful tally (Hebrew) of public declarations of support by the political blog of analyst Tal Schneider, consist largely of left-wing MKs who, while vocal, do not represent the prevailing winds in the Knesset.
Similarly, Meir Sheetrit’s 11 supporters include the entirety of his own party (six votes, including his own), suggesting he has already reached the height of his political support, and even that those who announced they were voting for him may be doing so out of political expediency – a necessity that will evaporate once they are standing behind the ballot box, shielded from the eyes and political disapproval of party leader Tzipi Livni.
Dan Shechtman, meanwhile, can’t even count on the support of the 10 MKs who signed on his application to enter the race, as several have announced that they supported enabling a famed Nobel laureate to join the race, but would not be voting for him for president. An outsider in a race of insiders (Dorner is as politically branded as the professional politicians she is competing against, evident in her left-wing support base and the vociferous opposition to her candidacy among some ultra-Orthodox MKs), Shechtman has largely failed to impress MKs of any potential boon to the country should he be elected president.
And that leaves Dalia Itzik, who can show only a modest 10 supporters. But while Dorner’s 14 hail from a narrow political segment of the Knesset, Itzik’s supporters – from Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, Hadash and other parties – straddle the political divides. She is a longtime friend and ally of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), who is devoted enough to her candidacy that he has avoided supporting her publicly. A former Laborite and Knesset speaker, Itzik has the potential to attract left-wing votes who wish to deny the right’s candidate Rivlin the victory in a second round. Liberman doesn’t want to spoil that possibility by having right-wingers like himself embrace her too closely.
Itzik’s chances are also helped by the decision of both Shas (11 seats) and Labor (15 seats) to allow their MKs to vote their conscience. Since a party-wide vote could not have been enforced in any case in a secret ballot, these “free vote” decisions by the party leaders are simply public acknowledgements that no candidate is significantly more attractive than any other.
(It is worth noting that in the days of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas MKs were said to vote strictly according to his instructions even in secret ballots, since they had no reason to doubt the master’s piercing intellect could penetrate the curtains and envelopes of the ballot box.)
This freedom means Itzik may yet win over some of her former colleagues on the left, while many ultra-Orthodox MKs are likely to vote for her – at least in a second round against Rivlin – simply in order to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred candidate, a punishment for Netanyahu’s support in the last Knesset session for the Haredi draft bill and his decision to ultimately form a coalition with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and leave the ultra-Orthodox in the opposition.
If Itzik indeed makes it to the second round along with Rivlin, it is worth noting that Rivlin has so far garnered only three public supporters on the left: Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), Ilan Gilon (Meretz) and Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al). Faced with the possibility that a Netanyahu-supported Likud MK who opposes a two-state solution might become Israel’s president, Itzik should be able to mobilize for the second round a large contingent of supporters from the left, the Arab and Haredi parties, as well as a Liberman-led group of right-wingers opposed to Rivlin.
And yes, the ultra-Orthodox vote in such a scenario could well be the swing vote that gives Israel its first female president.
So The Times of Israel’s presidential race prediction – not an endorsement, mind you; merely a reading of the tea leaves – is as follows: Reuven Rivlin and Dalia Itzik are very strongly favored to win the first round. Reuven Rivlin is slightly favored to win the second, though if he does it won’t be by much.