Could President Peres foil the will of the Israeli voter?
Traditionally, that role has always gone to the head of the slate that garnered the most seats in the elections. But four years ago, it was obvious that Tzipi Livni, the head of Kadima, would not be able to form a new government, despite having the largest party by one seat, and so the task was placed on Binyamin Netanyahu. So the President does have some discretion.
Now, with Likud-Beiteinu showing up as the largest party by far in the polls, Peres is being accused of trying to encourage the formation of a Center-Left bloc on whom he could bestow the first chance of forming a government.
Two newspapers on Sunday quoted unnamed senior Likud ministers on their front page, who claim that President Peres is driving the recent moves toward greater coordination between leaders of the three main center-left parties – which culminated last night in a three-way meeting between Shelly Yacimovich, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. The anonymous Likudniks believe that Peres is trying to create a situation where immediately after the elections, Labor, Hatnuah and Yesh Atid join forces to create one parliamentary bloc larger than Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu. This will allow Peres to give the bloc's leader, rather than Netanyahu, the first chance to form a coalition. Such a scenario currently seems less than feasible. But no one has denied that Peres met with the three leaders separately in recent days though his spokeswoman vehemently denied that he was involved in politics in any way.
The denials, of course, are rather disingenuous. This is Peres' second election campaign as president. During the previous campaign, he seemed a lot more sanguine about Netanyahu's inevitable victory and spent the months leading up to the vote in talks with world leaders, trying to persuade them that Bibi had changed and he was much more moderate than he was during his first term in the 1990s. I remember during his state visit to Britain in November 2008, Peres' aides were very open about how he was promoting Netanyahu at Downing Street, months before he was elected. Now it seems he has lost hope in the candidate-turned-prime minister. It is widely believed that Peres is the "senior national figure" who was quoted two weeks ago in Yedioth Ahronoth warning of the dire implications of another Netanyahu term for Israel's foreign relations. Now he seems to be giving the opposition valuable behind-the-scenes support.
To be sure, there's nothing new about this. The president's official neutrality has often been compromised. No one knows this better than Peres who, as Labor leader in 1990, was given a second chance to form a coalition by his former party colleague, President Chaim Herzog, though it was clear by then that he had no chance of commanding the necessary majority. Three weeks later, it was Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir who emerged as prime minister. Peres is also not the first president to interfere on Netanyahu's watch. In 1996, frustrated at Netanyahu's intransigence on the peace process, President Ezer Weizman took the unorthodox -- and what many at the time saw as unconstitutional -- step of inviting PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to visit him at his private residence in Caesarea.
Or will he? At the moment, the polls show the three Center-Left parties as being close to the same number as Likud-Beiteinu. The Right still leads on the whole, but the Likud is dropping in the polls and hemorrhaging votes to Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party. And that's why Bibi's in a panic.Some, including Livni, have urged Peres to resign and openly lead the opposition against Netanyahu. But at age 89 and after five-and-a-half years as president, he is loath to jeopardize his hard-won public popularity. So Peres keeps up the show of the president of all Israelis. Sometime next month, he will welcome Netanyahu to his office, smile for the cameras and yet again task him with forming a government.