by Anat Shalev
JERUSALEM, June 11 (Xinhua) -- A rift inside the ruling right- wing party, an attempt to form a left-center alliance and political deals with the ultra-Orthodox parties: all these issues were at the background of the presidential election in Israel on Tuesday, in which Reuven Rivlin became the 10th Israeli president.
Although he was expected to win the race without problem, it appeared for a minute that the victory might slip away from him, as the dark horse, Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), garnered a lot of votes and managed to move to the second round run-off vote, getting, in the end, only 10 votes less than Rivlin. This is what happened behind the scenes of the presidential elections.
THE RIFT IN LIKUD
The battle between Rivlin and Sheetrit exposed a rift between two camps within the ruling Likud party -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates, who were against Rivlin, and Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, the biggest challenger to Netanyahu's Likud leadership and also supporter of Rivlin.
"The dramatic end of the presidential race marked the opening of another race, for the head of the Likud party and, following that, to the prime minister's position," Omri Nachmias, a political analyst for Walla news website told Xinhua on Wednesday.
"Rivlin's victory exposed the Likud as a torn and divided party and brought to the surface Sa'ar's challenge over Netanyahu's leadership as he had the final say yesterday," Nachmias said.
Officially Netanyahu, due to a lack of a better option, endorsed Rivlin, but unofficially it was a different story. Netanyahu tried to postpone the election to get alternative candidates. The bad blood goes back to the time when Rivlin was the Knesset speaker and blocked some of the prime minister's initiatives.
"Everybody understood the consequences of the vote," a source in the Likud told Xinhua. "The vote brought to the front the future leadership battle and this was a hard downfall for Netanyahu. It showed he is losing control over his coalition," the source added.
Yossi Verter, a political analyst from the Haa'retz Daily, described how Sa'ar and his associates made last minute attempts between the first and second round to ensure the presidency is not slipping from Rivlin's hands.
"Sa'ar and Haim Katz, two of (Rivlin's) supporters, were in the room with him after the first round," Verter wrote. "Katz sat by the phone. Sa'ar paid a courtesy call to Shas and the United Torah Judaism (ultra-Orthodox parties) and told Rivlin that most of the orthodox were switching to vote for him," he added.
A NEW CENTER-LEFT UNION
On Monday night, various politicians gathered to celebrate at a family event of MK Aryeh Deri (Shas). An alliance, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog, was formed as they decided to work together to promote Meir Sheetrit.
A political source told Xinhua the cooperation between Livni and Herzog was a kind of experiment ahead of further future moves together. "If the move would have been successful, it would have been the preparation for the next phase to overthrow the government," he said.
"It would have solidified Livni's status in her party. Right now, if she leaves, it's not certain that her party members would leave with her. If she were to align herself with Herzog and leave the government with her party, and perhaps, on the way, influence Yesh Atid, then the government would eventually collapse," the source added.
Livni announced soon after entering Netanyahu's coalition that she would focus on the peace process with the Palestinians, which came to a halt in April as the Israeli cabinet announced it would not negotiated with a Hamas-backed Palestinian government. There has been criticism in the center and left-wing over Livni's refusal to leave the government amid these developments.
Herzog's confidants tried and secure votes from the left-wing Meretz party, the orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism Party, as well as several members from the Likud, the Labor and the Arab parties on Monday night and Tuesday morning.
"It's possible that the move did not succeed in the end because several parliamentarians got cold feet, from Meretz and the Labor party, for instance," Nachmias says. The reason for the cold feet, he explained, is various reports suggesting possible misconducts on Sheetrit's part and fearing of being associated with him.
ULTRA-ORTHODOX PARTIES TIPPED THE SCALES
"Arithmetically, the ultra-Orthodox parties made a significant contribution to the election of the 10th president," Yair Ettinger, Haaretz's analyst for ultra-Orthodox issues, wrote on Wednesday.
"Estimates are that the ultra-Orthodox MKs contributed at least half of the 19 votes that wandered over to Rivlin between the first and second round," he added.
Both Rivlin and Sheetrit supported the draft law for the orthodox men, which the orthodox parties vehemently oppose, but, as Ettinger explained, "although Rivlin did vote for the draft law, he is the ultimate disciple of Menachem Begin (former prime minister and legendary head of the Likud party) who saw the ultra- Orthodox as his natural allies," Ettinger explained.
Associates of Rivlin from the Likud party told the orthodox parliamentarian, between one voting round and the next, that Sheetrit expressed "anti-religious" sentiments in the past and reminded them that the orthodox parties objected to Sheetrit's appointment as education minister in the early 2000's.
The main losers from Rivlin's victory are Netanyahu and his ally Avigdor Lieberman, who was once considered to be the king maker of Israeli politics. Lieberman made it clear that he would not support Rivlin and would endorse "anyone but him."
The Foreign Minister tried to promote his favorite candidate Dalia Itzik, another former Knesset speaker with mutual interests as his, but she barely got 30 votes and did not make it beyond the first round. This is Lieberman's second public defeat in a row after he failed to get Moshe Leon, his protege, to win the Jerusalem municipal elections several months ago.
Netanyahu and Lieberman would now have to deal with an independent and active president, and reshuffle their cards as the Israeli political game is evolving.