Rivlin urges Israelis not to lose faith in democracy, despite third elections

President express hope that ‘depth of the current political crisis’ will lead to less polarized society, cause Israelis to search for common ground

President Reuven Rivlin at a conference in Tel Aviv on November 24, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin at a conference in Tel Aviv on November 24, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday sought to reassure an Israeli citizenry that has just watched its political leaders fail for a second consecutive time to form a government, sending the country to a third election in 11 months.

“After two rounds of elections and as a third election campaign begins, I believe this is also critical moment for the Israeli public, which will choose its leaders. Israeli democracy was and still is a source of pride, and we know that the democratic system comes at a cost,” Rivlin said in a statement.

“I pray that the depth of the current political crisis and the divisions it exposes among us will lead us as a society and as a country to fight not only for the right to disagree with each other — but also to the duty to find what we can agree about,” he added.

Rivlin’s comments came after the Knesset automatically dissolved Wednesday at midnight, following a 21-day period in which any lawmaker who won backing from 61 MKs could have gotten a crack at forming a government — but none did. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Blue and White rival Benny Gantz each failed to assemble a coalition in the wake of elections in September.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L), President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meet at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Following those elections, in which both Gantz and Netanyahu were unable to secure a majority of Knesset seats together with their respective allies, Rivlin proposed a power-sharing agreement for a unity government between Blue and White and the premier’s Likud party.

The specific terms of the agreement, namely when Netanyahu would take an indefinite leave of absence over corruption charges against him, were one of a number of disagreements that doomed unity talks between the parties.

“I hope that this is the last election campaign for the next four years, and that we will be able to grow as a people and a society from the division and disagreement that separate us to agreement and action that benefits us all,” Rivlin said. “We must not lose faith in the democratic system or in its ability to create the reality we live in… When the time comes, we will all exercise our democratic right and do it in the hope of a better future.”

Before Rivlin’s official announcement of the Knesset’s dissolution, lawmakers passed a bill early Thursday setting the new elections for March 2.

The April 2019 election made history when by the end of May it became the first-ever Israeli election that failed to produce a government. At the time, Netanyahu was just one vote short of a majority. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman had refused to join him over disagreements on the ultra-Orthodox enlistment law with Netanyahu’s Haredi political allies, precipitating the repeat vote in the fall.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu will be campaigning in the upcoming election in the shadow of criminal charges against him in three corruption probes, which were announced by the attorney general last month. He faces an indictment over bribery in one case, and fraud and breach of trust in all three. He denies  wrongdoing.

He also faces an internal leadership challenge by Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar in an upcoming party primary.

A Tuesday poll showed Blue and White increasing its lead over Likud, expanding its current one-seat advantage to a four-seat lead — 37 seats to Likud’s 33 in the 120-member Knesset. Meanwhile, the rightist Haredi bloc of parties backing Netanyahu is set to fall by three seats, according to the Channel 13 poll, from the current 55 total to 52, far short of the 61 seats it would need to form a coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

The poll predicted Likud falling even further if the party drops the scandal-laden Netanyahu in favor of his main challenger, Sa’ar.

When asked who they blamed for the expected third election, 41 percent of respondents blamed Netanyahu, followed by Yisrael Beytenu leader Liberman at 26%, and Gantz at a mere 5%. Twenty-three percent said “everyone is equally responsible.”

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