President Reuven Rivlin meets with residents from Nataf, outside of Jerusalem, on November 27, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin meets with residents from Nataf, outside of Jerusalem, on November 27, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
Countdown to April 9Blue and White, Likud both claim to be winning. Neither may

Citizen Rivlin: Campaigns target the one voter who could decide the election

If the race is close enough, it will be the president who picks the winner — and that has Prime Minister Netanyahu worried

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Exactly a week before Election Day, the polls show a tantalizingly close race between the ruling Likud party and its rival, Blue and White, with the two slates neck-and-neck.

That, at any rate, is how Blue and White is talking about the race. The party is presenting its approximately 30-30-seat tie with Likud as a proud victory in its own right. The former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, who leads the newly formed centrist slate, has gone from a political neophyte to within touching distance of the premiership. And merely the appearance that the party can offer a viable challenge to the incumbent Likud is itself an electoral advantage that holds strong potential to attract voters eager to send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu packing.

According to the Blue and White party and its leaders, Netanyahu, who on Sunday marked a decade in power, is close to losing his first election since 2009, and Gantz is on the verge of a political upheaval. All he needs is a final push to give Blue and White more seats than the Likud, and he will replace Netanyahu as prime minister, they say.

Just seven days until the national ballot, the party’s strategy is concentrated on one thing: outperforming Likud.

“Our focus is on being the biggest party, making sure we are ahead when we reach April 9,” Blue and White spokesperson Yarden Avriel told The Times of Israel Sunday.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on March 28, 2019. (Sharia Diamnet)

In a message directed at potential voters not from the Likud, but from other parties that are also campaigning on an anti-Netanyahu platform, Blue and White is claiming that the only way to ensure the prime minister is ousted is to rally around his chief rival’s flag.

“Anyone who wants to see us building the coalition has to vote for us; anyone who wants Benny Gantz as prime minister needs to vote for us,” Avriel said. “Once we are the biggest party, the task of building the government will be placed in our hands.”

There is just one problem: That’s not necessarily true.

Israeli governments are not composed of individual parties, but of coalitions that rarely contain fewer than four parties. So the winners of elections are not necessarily the largest parties, but the largest blocs. When the centrist Kadima party under Tzipi Livni won 28 seats in the 2009 election, Netanyahu, with 27 seats, became prime minister because his Likud could rely on the support of enough parties to give him a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

That is why the Likud is now insisting it is handily winning the election.

Yes, both the ruling party and its upstart rival are polling at around 30 seats each. But a right-wing, Likud-led bloc made up of the parties that have already said they prefer to see Netanyahu remain in power rises dramatically to anywhere between around 52 and 62 seats, or more. With support of both unabashedly right-wing parties — the New Right, Union of Right-Wing Parties and Yisrael Beytenu — and the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, Likud’s path to a stable ruling coalition is shorter than its rival’s.

Blue and White’s stated strategy relies on a simple calculation: The better they do on Election Day, the more the race will be decided by one man — President Reuven Rivlin

By contrast, Gantz’s Blue and White, having all but ruled out the two Arab-Israeli parties, Ra’am-Balad and Ta’al-Hadash (and all but been ruled out by them), can only comfortably rely on the backing of Labor and Meretz, leaving it heading a bloc with a far-from-comfortable 40-45 seats. And only the center-right Kulanu, a member of the current coalition, and the new libertarian-nationalist party Zehut — two parties which are likely to hold at most eight to 10 seat between them — have suggested openness to joining either Blue and White or Likud.

Gantz’s ability to lead a coalition therefore rests on three intertwined factors: the possibility of several parties expected to enter the Knesset failing to pass the electoral threshold, dramatically altering the balance of power between the two main blocs; Blue and White’s own final Knesset seat tally; and whether parties stand by their pledged allegiances after all the votes have been counted.

But ultimately, Blue and White’s stated strategy relies on a simple calculation: The better it does on Election Day, the more the race will be decided by one man — President Reuven Rivlin.

Who wins?

There are three stages to an Israeli election: the voting for the parliament, the presidential selection of the potential prime minister, and coalition negotiations to form a government with a parliamentary majority.

The people of Israel only have a say in the first part. The third part usually falls into place, eventually.

And so, seven days before polls open, it is the second stage, the presidential selection of a prime minister, that is the great unknown of the race. If 61 or more of the 120 MKs recommend one candidate, Rivlin will almost certainly task that candidate with building a coalition. But if they don’t, there is no clear guideline as to how Rivlin must decide whom to entrust with leading the government, and few legal limitations.

By law, the prime-minister-designate can be any of the 120 newly elected MKs. She or he does not have to be the head of the largest party, or even the head of a party at all. And Netanyahu is deeply worried that Rivlin, a president he has openly clashed with, might exhibit more creativity than his predecessors.

In a series of carefully chosen appearances in recent weeks, Rivlin has indeed started to make it clear that he will not be cowed, even if he remains excruciatingly opaque about what he plans to do.

Delivering a civics lesson last week to 12th-graders in Beit Shemesh, Rivlin said that his role was that of an emissary of the people — and no one. “In the State of Israel, and in any democratic state, there is a single sovereign and that is not the government, but rather the people. There are many different views and types of people. As a rule, the president has to take into account what the people wanted in the election, as expressed in the results of the vote,” he told the students.

President Reuven Rivlin delivers a civics-lesson in Bet Shemesh, 26 March, 2019. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

Two scenarios that Rivlin may see as “what the people want” haunt Netanyahu.

The first: If Netanyahu’s own Likud party saw its chance to lead the next government threatened by the graft charges widely expected to be brought against the prime minister after the election, there would, theoretically, be nothing to stop even Netanyahu’s own MKs from recommending for premier another candidate from among their ranks.

Ahead of the February Likud primary, Netanyahu explicitly claimed that popular former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, having just returned to politics after a break, had hatched a scheme with Rivlin that would see the president sideline Netanyahu after the elections and task Sa’ar with forming a government in his stead. Netanyahu even unsuccessfully pushed to amend one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, to ensure that only the leader of each elected political party has the right to form a government and not any other figure on the parties’ lists.

In the second scenario, if neither the right-wing bloc nor the center-left bloc has a majority, the president is expected to appoint the person whom he believes has the best chances of building a coalition. And that is where it gets tricky. If, for instance, more MKs recommend Netanyahu for prime minister, but Blue and White is the largest party by a significant margin, the president could argue that the will of the people calls for Gantz to get the first shot at trying to build a coalition.

The ferocious political battle that could then ensue between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would both argue that they represent the will of the people, would be matched in severity only by the arguments of the constitutional scholars.

President Reuven Rivlin greets Gideon Sa’ar at a conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kiryat Ono, on August 22, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

“The rule is that the largest party gets the first chance to build a government,” said constitutional Suzie Navot, who lectures at the Haim Striks School of Law, dismissing the assumption that the number of recommendations has more weight. It is true that in 2009 Livni’s Kadima had one more seat than Likud, “but that was an exception. If the gap between the two largest parties were bigger, it would be much harder for the president to let the smaller party have the first try.”

Dr. Ofer Kenig, a senior lecturer at the Ashkelon Academic College and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said, however, that the situation would be “a definite headache for Rivlin.”

According to Kenig, just having more seats, even with a large gap over the second party, does not guarantee “that you have a better chance of building a stable coalition within a reasonable timeframe.”

“I think the president will ignore that calculation,” he said, in the situation where Netanyahu has the backing of a majority of members in the new Knesset.

Rivlin himself has said both options are viable.

“The question is,” he told the students in Beit Shemesh, “what does the president do when there is no majority for a single person? What should he take into account? Perhaps the biggest party? It may be a question of how many MKs support one candidate as opposed to how many support a different candidate, and whether the MK who received the most support has the best chance of persuading others to form a coalition with him.”

Unhelpfully for Netanyahu, for now the president seems more eager to pose questions than to provide answers.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a memorial service marking 23 years since the assassination of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, held at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on October 21, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Attack the bloc

But Rivlin could also face another quandary. If the right-wing bloc led by Likud were to fail to get at least 61 seats, and Blue and White would become the largest party, Gantz may not even need a majority to become prime minister.

The law here is also ambiguous: A majority of MKs can bring down a government with a vote of no confidence, but a government does not need the support of a majority and the coalition can, in theory, exist with less than 61 MKs. The Basic Law: The government explicitly says that a simple majority — as opposed to a 61-seat-plus coalition — is enough.

That’s what Netanyahu means when he warns that Blue and White will form an “obstructive bloc” of parties who want to get rid of him, including even parties less thrilled about the prospect of a prime minister Gantz. In an effort to galvanize right-wing voters, the premier has claimed that his chief challenger is cooperating with the Arab parties in an effort to end Likud’s decade-long rule. In fact, it has become one of the main themes of the party’s election campaign.

In one recent video, Netanyahu, dressed in an apron worn over a suit a tie, pours some oil and cracks two eggs into a frying pan.

“OK, that’s what I know how to cook. But I know what they’re cooking up,” he says, referring to Blue and White. “They’re cooking up a left-wing government, supported by the leftist parties and the Arab parties. They won’t fool anyone.”

מה אתם הכנתם לארוחת בוקר?

מה אתם הכנתם לארוחת בוקר?

פורסם על ידי ‏Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‏ ב- יום חמישי, 14 במרץ 2019

The subtext is obvious: a warning to the Likud’s hawkish constituencies that voting for the centrist Blue and White list will ominously empower the Arab parties, which most mainstream Jewish Israelis consider beyond the pale. Only a strong Likud will guarantee a right-wing coalition and will not have to rely on the support of anti-Zionist parties.

The establishment of a minority government right after parliamentary elections would be unprecedented in Israel, but is theoretically an option, several constitutional scholars said.

“It’s certainly a possible scenario,” said Gideon Rahat, who teaches political science at the Hebrew University. “Minority governments exists all over the world. In this particular case, the Arab parties do not need to actively support Gantz. All they need to do is to not oppose him.”

Kenig, the IDI fellow, agreed that the possibility exists, but said he believes Gantz would rule it out it for political reasons. “To start the government relying on the external support of the Arab parties — publicly, he would be crucified,” he said.

But Rivlin has railed against efforts to disenfranchise political parties and, in a rare show of public outrage, recently slammed the “absolutely unacceptable discourse against Arab citizens of Israel in these elections.”

Speaking at a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt last month, Rivlin said, “There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters… We are all equal in the voting booth — Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel.”

All equal. All legitimate. All an option.

President Reuven Rivlin and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein address the opening of Knesset’s winter session on October 27, 2014. (PMO/Hila Mizrahi)

Rivlin’s warning

In lieu of any Blue and White- or Likud-led bloc succeeding in any of the above scenarios, there still remains a final and dramatic option at Rivlin’s disposal, one that he has even warned may be his preferred path: If no candidate wins the 61 recommendations for an outright appointment, the president may decide to force a national unity government.

Can the president do that? Yes, with surprising ease.

‘In these highly charged days, I urge you all to follow in Eshkol’s footsteps: the way of reconciliation and acceptance, seeing the other as a legitimate partner for common political action — not as the enemy within to be fought’

According to Kenig, it is completely within Rivlin’s constitutional purview to offer both Gantz and Netanyahu an ultimatum: agree to a national unity government, dividing the premiership by rotation, or see your opponent get the first chance at premier.

In fact, “it’s the most realistic [scenario],” Kenig said.

Rivlin’s own comments, delivered in a eulogy last month for the 50th anniversary of the death of former prime minister Levi Eshkol, may confirm as much.

“Eshkol was not only a party man. From the moment he was elected prime minister, he was the leader of all of Israel. When I say leader, I mean it in the fullest sense of the world: a man with the power to imagine a different reality, a better reality than the current one, and the skill to make it happen. That was Eshkol,” Rivlin said, as Netanyahu sat in the front row before him.

Recalling the decision to invite the rival Herut party into the government ahead of the 1967 Six Day War, Rivlin said that Eshkol’s order to bring the remains of Revisionist icon Ze’ev Jabotinsky to Israel “was the first and crucial step in accepting Herut as a legitimate political movement.”

President Reuven Rivlin speaking at a memorial ceremony for former Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, 12 March, 2019.(Mark Neiman/GPO)

“And then came the second dramatic step that Eshkol took as prime minister,” noted Rivlin. “Eshkol, who understood that Herut was a legitimate part of the country, was wise enough to agree to the inclusion of the party led by Begin into the national unity government on the eve of the war.”

At the end of his remarks, with Netanyahu now crossing his arms on his chest, Rivlin finally dropped his ambiguity: “In these highly charged days, I urge you all to follow in Eshkol’s footsteps: the way of reconciliation and acceptance, seeing the other as a legitimate partner for common political action — not as the enemy within to be fought.”

As their campaigns rage, Gantz and Netanyahu have each announced that they will not sit in a government with the other — as though the choice were theirs alone.

Raphael Ahren and Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.

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