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Netanyahu explored a last-minute run for president, but ultimately rejected it

Likud officials eyed idea of leader moving to new post, hoping it would break country out of political logjam, but PM eventually said: ‘It’s better to be leader of the opposition’

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Newly elected Israeli President Isaac Herzog (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset after Herzog's election, June 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Newly elected Israeli President Isaac Herzog (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset after Herzog's election, June 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With his prospects of remaining in power fading, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explored the possibility in May of running for the presidency before eventually deciding against it, Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, reported Thursday.

Senior Likud officials, seeking to reach a deal to remove Netanyahu from his post as a way to end the ongoing political stalemate, suggested the option to him in mid-May while Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid held the mandate to form the next government.

Netanyahu asked whether he could muster the necessary votes to win the presidency. “Are you sure this thing has a majority?” he inquired. The officials assured Netanyahu that he did, and promised to explore the possibility.

With Netanyahu out of the way, Likud would have easily mustered a Knesset majority to form a government with the backing of Yamina and New Hope. The latter’s leader Gideon Sa’ar had repeatedly said he would join a Likud-led government so long as the party was not led by Netanyahu.

The inquiries were conducted in secret by the Likud officials along with representatives of the Prime Minister’s office, who came to the conclusion that Netanyahu would be able to beat any candidate, including Isaac Herzog.

While the matter was being looked into, Netanyahu’s top advisers held consultations with legal experts who came to the conclusion that Netanyahu’s potential election to the presidency would likely not be struck down by the High Court.

President Reuven Rivlin, right, tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference a the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

The Likud officials returned to Netanyahu, promising him that he had a majority of support in the Knesset. However, the prime minister had already decided against the move by then. “I am not interested,” he said. “It’s better to be the leader of the opposition” than to be president.

One of the Likud officials involved in the inquiry told Zman Yisrael that it had been “a missed opportunity.”

“The premiership and the presidency could have been in the hands of Likud today,” the official said. “Now we are left with nothing. There were even MKs in the [political] center and left who were willing to support Netanyahu [for president], because they believed that it would prevent a fifth election.”

Herzog eventually won the vote with a decisive majority.

With the so-called “change bloc” managing to cobble together a coalition of eight parties from the right, center and left, a new government looks set be sworn in on Sunday afternoon. Netanyahu, after 12 straight years as premier, will become leader of the opposition.

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