A report Wednesday in a newspaper that backs Benjamin Netanyahu said the prime minister has been delaying a decision on bringing forward the 2019 elections, due to fears that President Reuven Rivlin could task someone else with forming a government.
A spokesperson for Rivlin hit back at the claims, published by the Israel Hayom Daily, dismissing them as “paranoia.”
Sources close to Netanyahu said that the reported plot had originated from an unnamed former senior Likud party member, whom Israel Hayom later named as Gideon Sa’ar, an erstwhile education minister and a potential challenger to Netanyahu in the next elections. He too denied the report.
According to the report, Netanyahu recently told associates that he had decided to delay calling elections until he can complete consultations on the alleged plot, including examining the possibility of a change in the law that would limit the president’s power to choose who will form the government.
The next elections must take place by November 2019, but recent reports have suggested that Netanyahu is considering taking the country to the polls as early as next March.
According to current law, after elections, the president consults with the heads of all factions before asking the party leader deemed to have the best chances of forming a government to begin negotiations with potential coalition partners. The leader tasked with forming a government is generally the one who receives the most recommendations from other parties, and is usually — but not necessarily — the head of the party that has won the largest number of seats.
According to the report, Rivlin has been mulling the possibility of tasking someone other than Netanyahu with forming the government — another MK within Likud, if the party wins resoundingly, or a lawmaker from another party, if the margin of victory is narrower — in light of the ongoing corruption investigations against the prime minister.
Coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) said that in the coming days, he would propose a change in the law that would prevent such a maneuver.
“The head of the party is the most dominant person and the one who usually brings the votes to the party,” Amsalem told Israel Hayom. “The idea that we can bypass him and appoint someone else in his place after the election is a kind of coup. I intend to bring forward a bill by which the president will put the responsibility for forming a government on the head of the party that receives the most recommendations.”
“There is a gap in the law regarding presidential authority in the forming of a government, and it needs to be fixed,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told the Kan public broadcaster.
According to Israel Hayom, Netanyahu had recently decided to dissolve the Knesset during the first few days of its winter session, which began last week, but then he received word from associates and officials within the Likud party that Rivlin would not task him with forming a new government, due to concerns relating to the criminal investigations into him.
The report said that leaders of other parties could also condition their participation in the government on it being led by someone other than Netanyahu.
Israel Hayom is widely regarded as having a pro-Netanyahu slant, due to the close ties of its owner, the conservative billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, to the prime minister.
The President’s Residence dismissed the report in unusually strong terms.
“We read the report in depth, but found it hard to find any concrete information other than paranoia that does not rely on any actions, or even thoughts, that have taken place in reality,” Rivlin’s office said in response. “As it is known, the treatment of such things is best left to professionals, not spokespeople.”
Since becoming president in 2015, Rivlin has publicly differed with Netanyahu on a number of hot-button issues, though he has refrained from directly attacking the prime minister. The president has also been outspoken in defending various institutions from attacks by Netanyahu and his allies.
Sa’ar, who was also tied to the reported initiative to bypass Netanyahu, dismissed the report as a “ridiculous conspiracy theory.”
“I usually do not deal with false claims, especially since there is no one willing to stand behind things and say them in their own voice,” the former Likud minister tweeted. “But since my name has been mixed up in this, I want to announce in the clearest possible way: The things that were published are unfounded. They are totally baseless. It concerns me that there are those who whisper such nonsense in the prime minister’s ear.
“We await patiently a shred of evidence to confirm this ridiculous conspiracy theory,” he added.
Sa’ar was a rising star in Likud until he took a break from politics in 2014. Analysts consider him a top contender for the premiership in a post-Netanyahu era, and he continues to enjoy high popularity among Likud activists. Sa’ar has expressed the intention to run for the leadership, not only of the Likud, but of the entire country.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said the report was the latest in a series of attacks by the Netanyahu government on various groups and institutions.
“After the Arabs, the courts, the Israel Police, bereaved families, and the IDF chief of staff, now it is the turn of the president,” she said. “Instead of substantive discussion, every bill proposal is accompanied by a dumping of sludge and to hell with everyone else.”
In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister after Livni was unable to form a coalition, despite her Kadima Party winning the most seats.
Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption in three separate cases, and lawmakers close to him have launched repeated attacks on the press and police, proposing various pieces of legislation to limit their ability to report on or investigate public figures, respectively.
In two cases, dubbed 1000 and 2000, police have already recommended bribery indictments against the prime minister.
Netanyahu is also suspected of advancing regulatory decisions as communications minister and as prime minister that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in an investigation known as Case 4000.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.