Behind closed doors, President Shimon Peres is whispering (loudly) that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants to be a dictator over Israel.
That’s because the prime minister is attempting to end the president’s authorization to assign the top political party the task of assembling a governing coalition after each election.
Netanyahu also wants to postpone the presidential elections for up to six months, according to a report broadcast last week on Voice of Israel government radio. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein would take over the reins from Peres in July if the prime minister succeeds.
But according to a report last week in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv, Netanyahu’s real goal is to abolish the presidency altogether.
Peres said in conversations with confidantes that Netanyahu’s initiative is “an attempt to establish a dictatorship here,” The Jerusalem Post reported. He claimed the prime minister would not “be satisfied until there is an absolute ruler [in the prime minister’s office].”
The president, who retires next month when he turns 90 years old, has always been far more active politically and diplomatically than is generally accepted. In that he is similar to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, also elderly, who has traveled to numerous nations around the world and freely spoken his mind, regardless of the impact his actions might have on U.S. relations or foreign policy in those regions – including here in the Middle East.
In the State of Israel, the position of president is one that is supposed to be primarily ceremonial, rather than actively political, and brings with it little actual authority. This has proved to be a major frustration for Shimon Peres, who has likewise felt the need to express his opinions regardless of whether they contradict those of his own government. Both men have created awkward situations for their governments and at times have even sabotaged their governments’ efforts as a result.
However, not every president is a Shimon Peres and new presidential elections are coming up fast. Netanyahu still has to drum up support for any move either to postpone elections or to eliminate a president’s ability to assign coalition-building — or for that matter abolish the post — and that’s not easy.
Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, 74, has a great deal of support for his candidacy in the upcoming election, and not only from Bayit Yehudi Housing Minister, MK Uri Ariel. Although Rivlin appears to be a genial man, he is not likely to allow himself to be sidelined so quickly, nor are his colleagues likely to be willing to sit silently by and let it happen.
His biggest rival, Binyamin Ben-Eleizer, 78, is another strong contender unlikely to allow Netanyahu to give away his right to assign coalition formation. The Iraqi-born former IDF general is close with the Sephardic population and maintains excellent relations with Arab leaders.
Silvan Shalom, 55, and a former finance and former minister, also has considered running for president but now may drop the idea. His candidacy would likely not succeed due to allegations of sexual offenses against former employees. At least one involved formal charges, but the case was dropped because the statute of limitations had expired. Each of the others did not materialize for various other reasons, according to a statement by the Justice Ministry last week.
There are also reports that former Soviet refusenik Natan Scharansky, 66 and currently director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been approached by various people asking him to toss his hat into the ring. Hugely popular, Scharansky has not yet discussed the matter in public.