All eyes on thee: 5 things to know for September 22
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All eyes on thee: 5 things to know for September 22

The apolitical president becomes a central political player as parties head to Rivlin’s residence for talks on who can break the logjam and form a government

President Reuven Rivlin at a memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin at a memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. And now the fun begins: President Reuven Rivlin will begin holding consultations with political parties on Sunday regarding who should form the next government after last week’s elections left no candidate with a clear path to a coalition.

  • Rivlin will meet with parties in descending order of their seat total, beginning with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
  •  While these two meetings will largely be pro forma, with each party putting forward its respective leader as its choice for premier, Rivlin’s talks with the predominantly Arab alliance the Joint List and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu could yield some surprises.
  • The ultra-Orthodox Shas party will also meet with Rivlin in between the meetings with Joint List and Yisrael Beytenu, but there appears to be little doubt where its loyalties lie after it prominently featured Netanyahu in its election campaign and then joined his post-election negotiating “bloc” of right-wing and religious factions.

2. Will they or won’t they: As the third largest party, the Joint List giving a recommendation of Gantz for prime minister could help position the Blue and White leader to get the nod from Rivlin.

  • This remains up in the air, however, after a meeting of Joint List leaders on Saturday failed to produce a decision, leading them to reconvene Sunday before meeting Rivlin.
  • Joint List leaders have conditioned supporting Gantz on him backing a number of policies they champion and Channel 13 reported Saturday that through a back channel, Blue and White indicated it would support revising a law mandating stiff penalties for illegal construction. Blue and White, for its part, denies having promised anything to the Joint List in return for securing a recommendation of Gantz.
  • Other issues may prove more contentious, such as reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In addition, the chairman of the Joint List’s hardline Balad faction ruled out recommending Gantz form a government, branding him a right-winger who wants to get in bed with Likud.
  • Amid the internal split, the Ynet news site reported the Joint List’s constituent factions could split their recommendations, with Balad withholding its support as the rest back Gantz.
  • In the leftish Haaretz daily, Oudeh Basharat writes that without backing Gantz, the Joint List will be unable to force Netanyahu from office — a key plank of its election campaign.
  •  “Whoever doesn’t recommend Gantz is ultimately recommending Netanyahu the inciter, the divider, the enemy of the Arabs and every Jew with a whiff of democracy. Period,” he says.

3. Wild card: Whatever course the Joint List ends up taking could prove decisive in Yisrael Beytenu’s decision on who to recommend form a coalition.

  • Having helped precipitate Israel’s second round of elections by rebuffing Netanyahu’s offers to join a government after the April 9 vote, Liberman finds himself holding the balance of power, as neither Blue and White nor Likud have much of a chance at assembling a Knesset majority without Yisrael Beytenu.
  •  Though he vowed before the elections to push for a unity government of Likud and Blue and White and to recommend whichever of the party’s leaders backed the proposal first, he is now holding his cards close to his chest and sending mixed messages on what he’ll do.
  • As he has previously called Joint List lawmakers “terrorists” and a “fifth column,” hell would likely need to freeze over before Liberman sits with them in a government, putting Gantz in a delicate position of needing to secure Joint List support without driving Yisrael Beytenu away.
  • Now that he’s in the driver’s seat, the big question is what Liberman, who has previously served as defense and foreign minister, intends to do with his power.
  • Former prime minister and current Democratic Camp member Ehud Barak, no stranger to backroom political dealing, says Liberman’s playing coy on who he’ll recommend could be aimed at trying to create the necessary conditions to install himself as prime minister.
  • Liberman himself has previously expressed interest in being prime minister, but with only eight seats and little apparent goodwill in Likud after falling out with Netanyahu, such an outcome seems very remote.

4. Taking center stage: Though the presidency is normally a largely ceremonial role, Israel’s protracted political deadlock has turned Rivlin into a pivotal player.

  • Harel Tubi, the director-general of the President’s Residence, hints Israelis could be in for a surprise when Rivlin holds talks with the Knesset factions, which will be broadcast live.
  • Speaking with Army Radio, Tubi says Rivlin could float “possibilities that the public has never heard about before,” but doesn’t elaborate.
  • Tubi stresses Rivlin’s main priority will be preventing elections being called for the third time in less than a year and working to usher in a new government as quickly as possible.
  • He also addresses a television report over the weekend that Netanyahu has looked into the potential of Rivlin granting him a pardon from corruption charges in exchange for leaving office, saying the president would keep an open ear if prosecutors weigh such a move.

5. Elsewhere in the neighborhood: Unsurprisingly, non-election related news gets much less play in Israel’s main newspapers, though one new regional development could be cause for concern.

  • In Egypt, one of only two Arab countries that Israel has a peace agreement with, relatively small yet rare protests break out in opposition to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s rule.
  • While Sissi has demonstrated he has no qualms over suppressing dissent, protracted unrest could impact Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas, which have engaged in periodic bouts of fighting over the last year and a half.
  • Furthermore, the Kan public broadcaster notes that Qatar, a bitter rival of Egypt which is also helping to prevent a renewed flareup in the Gaza Strip, is using its Al Jazeera network to encourage Egyptians to take to the streets.
  • No prominent Israeli officials have weighed in on the budding unrest, while Hamas, which had close relations with Egypt’s Islamist president Mohammed Morsi before he was overthrown by Sissi, instructed its top leaders not to publicly discuss anything related to Egypt.
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