The slow crumbling of Netanyahu’s political prestige reached its nadir on Tuesday, when his own heir apparent Gideon Sa’ar turned against him to elevate arch-rival Reuven Rivlin to presidency.
Reuven Rivlin’s victory in the presidential elections on Tuesday was a resounding one, but nowhere near as resonant as Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeat – a domestic political defeat to match his 2013 failure to stop Iran-U.S. rapprochement, which yanked the rug out from under his foreign policy.
Rivlin and Netanyahu weren’t running against each other. Quite the contrary, Rivlin was the candidate of Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, adored by the party’s rank-and-file and Israelis in the street alike. With a bit of self-discipline and an exercise of that most elusive quality of leadership – humility – Netanyahu could have transformed today’s event into a sweeping victory for his party, for the nationalist camp and for himself personally. Worst come to worst, he could have even written it off as a pointless formality, playing on the public’s weariness of the largely ceremonial presidential role. Instead, Netanyahu made it into a personal crusade, raising the stakes of the presidential race immensely and amplifying his defeat to match. He is perceived as having ignored, deceived and ultimately betrayed his own party – and all to lose the race. This doesn’t mean Netanyahu will be going anywhere tomorrow, but it does mean that the historical fourth term he covets is becoming increasingly unlikely, and that like many a Prime Minister to have served three terms, the final blow might well come from his own home party.
The Netanyahu-Rivlin rift goes back to 2009, when the freshly victorious Netanyahu had Rivlin elected once again as Speaker of the Knesset. Rivlin, a tradionalist if there ever was one, soon proved to be much more loyal to parliament and to the letter of the law than to his own party. He stalled nearly every piece of anti-democratic legislation that came his way, deferring votes, sending bills to die in committees and even setting up committees especially to kill those bills he felt impinged on democratic rights. Along the way, he protected MK Hanin Zoabi when the Knesset tried to sanction her for taking part in the Gaza flotilla; elevated MK Ahmed Tibi, the Palestinian Israelis most love to hate, to deputy-speaker; acknowledged the “great suffering and real trauma” endured by Palestinians in 1948; and called for the establishment of one state in all of historical Israel-Palestine, where Palestinians would also have the vote.
All this and more could have been forgiven by Netanyahu, who, while grumbling about Rivlin’s obstinacy, made use of him to pour cold water over the more embarrassing excess of Likud’s younger parliamentarians and their coalition allies. The final straw apparently came later, when Rivlin made a disparaging comment about Netanyahu’s wife and her notorious tendency to intervene in her partner’s political appointments. “Maybe I should ask my wife who to appoint,” Rivlin quipped at a 2010 coalition meeting that dealt with a monitoring position that needed to be filled. “Oh, I forgot – my wife doesn’t appoint people.” This, according to Bibi-watchers across the political board, meant war.
The heir and challenger rises
And what a war it was. Netanyahu began by breaking his promise to Rivlin to support him for re-election as speaker should he himself be re-elected as prime minister in 2013, appointing Yuli Edelstein in his stead. Rivlin found himself unceremoniously dumped from leadership to the back benches where, true to form, he repeatedly voted together with the opposition and criticized his own party, especially when minority rights were under attack. Netanyahu then proceeded to make it known that while he cannot prevent Rivlin from standing for president, he won’t support him and will be looking for another candidate in his stead.
The only other Likud man keen to stand was Silvan Shalom, but he was discarded early in the wake of sexual harassment allegations (which didn’t materialize into criminal charges, but were severe enough to see Shalom out of the race). Netanyahu then dawdled for some months, before throwing the political equivalent of a tantrum in mid-May and launching a strange and obviously doomed campaign to abolish the presidency altogether. As this would have required a rare privileged majority, the plan was split in two: first Netanyahu would get Edelstein to postpone the election by a few months; then, he would use the time to persuade 80 out of the Knesset’s 120 deputies to dispense with the office of the ceremonial head of state.
Neither part of the plan worked. Edelstein pointedly consulted the candidates before refusing outright to move the election date. The normally complacent Yair Lapid saw Netanyahu’s flopping in the shallows as a convenient time to strike, and announced he would oppose any attempt to abolish the presidential office. Finally, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the man recognized for years as Netanyahu’s heir apparent, flatly refused to support his boss’ maneuver.
By challenging Netanyahu so openly, Sa’ar transformed himself from heir apparent to challenger, giving other ministers a cause to rally around. Having failed to recruit any support even among his own party ministers, Netanyahu beat a humiliating retreat. By then, members of Netanyahu’s inner circles were describing the prime minister as ‘fixated’ and ‘obsessed.’ As if this wasn’t enough, he spent the last 24 hours before candidacy registration deadline trying to persuade Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid to support the elderly Holocaust author Elie Wiesel, neither a citizen nor a resident of the state Netanyahu would have him ceremoniously lead.
Even after this last dash ended with a whimper, and even after Netanyahu made the most reluctant of endorsements for Rivlin’s candidacy, the Likud prime minister’s minders did not stop trying to undermine the Likud’s presidential candidate. Rumors about pressure to vote for anyone but Rivlin persisted as late as Tuesday afternoon, when Rivlin and Meir Sheetrit went head to head in the second round. Everywhere outside Netanyahu’s circle of confidantes, however, the party’s rank and file were seething, inundating the MKs with calls and text messages, reminding them that primaries votes were a more important factor in their future than the prime minister’s good graces.
In the end, it was left to Gideon Sa’ar to whip the coalition votes into shape in the second round and lead the charge, securing Rivlin the broad party base the Likud should have given him from the get go. Although Netanyahu’s ostensible support for Rivlin allowed Netanyahu to save face and to pretend Sa’ar was doing his bidding, the line in the sand Sa’ar drew could not have been more clear. Rivlin returned the favor, making Sa’ar the first person he thanked and praised in his acceptance speech. Netanyahu’s deadline might still be a relatively vague one, but next to that deadline there is already Gideon Sa’ar’s name.