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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — At the end of a tense vote that capped one of the country’s messiest political campaigns, Reuven Rivlin was chosen Tuesday to serve as Israel’s next president.

Rivlin, 74, was elected in Jerusalem by members of Israel’s 120-seat parliament to succeed the iconic Shimon Peres, who will be stepping down next month at the end of his seven-year term, just before his 91st birthday.

A veteran politician and former speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin was one of five final contenders, the largest number of candidates ever to run for the largely ceremonial yet influential position.

The presidency is open to any Israeli citizen residing in the country, but a candidate must first secure the signatures of 10 lawmakers to run. The signatures are public but elections are confidential, leaving room for surprises.

After no candidate secured the majority of 61 votes required to win in one round, a second vote was held between the two candidates with the most ballots: Rivlin and Meir Shetrit, two of the longest serving lawmakers in the house.

Rivlin, who defeated Shetrit 63 to 53, will resign from parliament and assume the presidency in July. He will be Israel’s 10th president.

Political events in Israel are usually festive but the process offered little cause for celebration in recent weeks, as the campaign got messier by the minute with political intrigues and police investigations.

Early on, allegations of sexual misconduct against one candidate, Silvan Shalom, were not enough to trigger a criminal case but killed his candidacy.

Then came reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking to postpone elections and possibly abolish the post altogether.

Another candidate, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was felled by an 11th-hour police investigation into alleged financial misconduct, sending him home and prompting the remaining candidates to disclose their finances — raising further questions.

“Skeletons burst out of candidates’ closets and began dancing in the town square,” Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi said in a media interview.

Photo via Li Rui/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.