Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s comments on the process of forming a new government touched off a fierce partisan row on Wednesday, with Likud MKs accusing him of overstepping his mandate in order to block Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s bid for a return to power, while opposition leaders accused Likud of trampling on the presidency.
On receiving the official results of the March 23 elections, Rivlin intimated that a change of leadership was imperative to put the country back on a path to normalcy.
Rivlin said the prolonged political crisis was damaging Israel’s democracy, and called for a government that will “pass the state budget, oversee the healing of damaged systems and citizens, and rescue state bodies from the political freeze we have landed in at a time when the people needs the state bodies more than ever.”
The president added: “I truly hope that the elected officials, representatives of the public, are able to hear the Israeli people and their call for out-of-the-ordinary coalitions, collaborations that cross sectors, working in a serious and dedicated way for the good of all of Israel’s citizens.”
While he did not specifically name any political parties or their leaders, Likud officials interpreted the remarks as a tacit endorsement of a coalition to replace Netanyahu, in which Rivlin exceeded his role of neutrality in the post-election process.
“The president has a duty to respect the will of the electorate, to act as a statesman and to refrain from other considerations,” Transportation Minister Miri Regev said in a statement. “It is not appropriate for a president who’s ending his term in about a month to make decisions contrary to the tradition that has always been practiced — handing a mandate to form a government to whoever gets the most recommenders.”
MK Shlomo Karhi and several other Likud MKs accused Rivlin of directly acting on behalf of New Hope chairman Gideon Saar, an old friend of his, and called on the president to recuse himself.
“The president’s personal ties and duty to Gideon Saar, the latter’s mission to overthrow Netanyahu, together with the president’s hostility to the most likely candidate, Netanyahu … require the president to transfer [the decision on who should be] forming the government to the next in line, according to the law,” Karhi said.
“The president does not determine the election results! He must not become a political player,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin were quoted by The Times of Israel in a rare joint statement Wednesday morning. “Since the establishment of the state, all the presidents of Israel have given the first opportunity to form a government to the candidate who received the largest number of recommendations — and this should be the case this time as well.”
However, the letter of the law does not require the president to designate the party head with the most votes to form a government. He can choose any member of Knesset for the task whom he believes has the best chance of succeeding.
Rivlin’s office issued a statement rejecting the Likud claim: “As the president said, the main consideration that will guide him in choosing the candidate on whom he will place the task of forming the government is the candidate’s chances of forming a government that will win the Knesset’s trust.”
“This is what all the presidents of Israel have done for generations and this is how the president has acted in all the previous election campaigns,” the statement added.
The opposition said the Likud statements were another example of the party’s alleged campaign against democratic norms.
“Likud’s attack on the president is further proof that there are only two options: either Netanyahu’s continued rule and a savage attack on state institutions, or joining the bloc of change and a change of government,” Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter.
Blue and White head Benny Gantz tweeted: “There is no state institution that the prime minister and his accomplices will not trample on,” citing previous attacks on the justice system.
“President Rivlin, as you have always done, continue to perform your duties honestly, fairly, and with statesmanship, while considering all the considerations in choosing who to form a coalition, just as the law allows you to,” Gantz said.