As the end of President Shimon Peres’s 7-year term approached, a nasty dirty battle was waged in recent weeks in the Knesset over who Israel’s next President was to be. Binyamin Netanyahu mystifyingly opposed Rivlin’s candidacy until the very last minute when it became obvious that he was “the people’s choice”. Judge Dalia Dorner was a center-left choice and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik the left’s choice. A dark horse entered the ring in the form of Nobel Prize-winner Prof. Dan Shechtman, and Meir Sheetrit was a centrist candidate. MK Binyamin Ben Eliezer was another center-left candidate, who had to drop out because of a financial scandal. He claimed that the timing of the scandal’s exposure was suspiciously close to the presidential election (he’s right) but no one can deny that there is some truth to the rumours.
To get a clearer picture of these confusing facts, read the Times of Israel’s backgrounder and their live-blog of the election and the reactions of the various candidates. Here’s just the beginning:
After a campaign dogged by multiple scandals, with front-running candidates Silvan Shalom and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer dropping out amid police investigations, the Knesset vote is about to kick off.
The five contenders vying to replace the venerable Shimon Peres as Israel’s president, a largely ceremonial position, are former justice Dalia Dorner, Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Dan Shechtman, former MK Dalia Itzik, Hatnua party MK Meir Sheetrit and veteran Likud MK Reuven Rivlin.
As we all now have heard, despite initial rumours that Meir Sheetrit had won the day, the election has in fact brought in former Knesset Speaker and Likud member Reuven Rivlin as our 10th President and I for one welcome his election. Lahav Harkov in the JPost describes Rivlin as “loving Jerusalem and Jabotinsky and opposing a Palestinian State”:
Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin, who is soon to become Israel’s 10th president, usually describes himself in two ways: A man of Jerusalem and a student of Likud ideological forebear Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Rivlin was born 74 years ago in Jerusalem, to a family descended from students of the Vilna Gaon, who lived in the city since the 19th century. His father, Yosef Yoel Rivlin, ran for president of Israel in 1952 as Likud predecessor Herut’s candidate.
The president-elect often talks about being a son of Herut, with classic liberal values of democracy and freedom, together with a commitment to strong defense and the Land of Israel. Rivlin opposes the formation of a Palestinian state and advocates giving Israeli citizenship to Palestinians.
Rivlin was known as a Knesset Speaker who was not afraid to make his views known, while being fair to those who disagree with him.
He spoke out against former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and the Supreme Court’s rulings to cancel legislation in his first term.
In his second term as Speaker, Rivlin courted controversy from some and brought praise from others after openly opposing bills that he felt would limit rights of minorities. He also refused to remove MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) from the Knesset following her participation in the violent Gaza flotilla in 2010.
Rivlin has known Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu since childhood; in fact, he attended the now-prime minister’s Brit. Their relationship “has had its ups and downs,” as Netanyahu put it when he reluctantly endorsed the Likud candidate for president in this year’s race.
The most recent “down” came as a result of Rivlin’s outspoken criticism of coalition bills in the previous Knesset, and, some say, to a quip Rivlin made in a Likud faction meeting about Netanyahu’s wife Sarah making political appointments, which led the prime minister not to back him for another term as Knesset Speaker.
As a result, Netanyahu was concerned that Rivlin’s tendencies to make his views known and their contentious relationship would make Rivlin a difficult president for him to work with.
However, Rivlin said that as president he plans to remove himself from politics and work on promoting unity in Israel and coexistence of its many diverse population groups.
Raphael Ahren in The Times of Israel wonders whether having a President who opposes a Palestinian State will be bad for Israel. I wonder whether those who suggest this are living in cloud-cuckoo land:
Shimon Peres, by repeating in every meeting with world leaders over the last few years that “there is no other game in town than the two-state solution,” somewhat counterbalanced the hawkish policies of the two last Netanyahu governments. Now that that the popular Nobel peace laureate is being replaced by someone who rejects that two-state solution, how will Israel fare in a world that wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state, and overwhelmingly blames Jerusalem for the current stalemate in the peace process?
For the head of state to espouse views so radically different from those of the head of government could spell serious trouble for Israel, some analysts fear. Others, however, point out that the president has limited powers to intervene in policy issues and that, more importantly, Rivlin is unlikely to publicly oppose positions adopted by the government.
“Ruby Rivlin can do a lot more harm than Peres did good,” said Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, an expert on political communications, using Rivlin’s nickname. A president who speaks continually about the need for peace hardly raises an eyebrow abroad, “but a president who talks about opposing two states and in favor of settlements — that would certainly make huge headlines.”
Bad news spreads more quickly – and widely — than good news, he said, and statements undermining Israel’s image as a state interested in reaching a fair peace agreement with the Palestinians will certainly be seen as bad news in the international media and capitals around the world.
“Ninety percent of Israel’s problems with the international community have to do with the perception that the government is not doing enough for peace,” Wolfsfeld said. “If Rivlin says provocative things, then we’re in trouble even more. If he avoids slips of the tongue of the kind we know he is sometimes prone to make, we should be alright. But he could certainly say things at some point that could embarrass the government.”
It’s funny how rightist slips of the tongue are problematic, but leftist slips are taken as fact. However Rivlin is a more complex character than mere left-right politics:
“He has an opinion on the two-state solution, but he is not widely seen as an ultra-nationalist,” said Mitchell Barak, a pollster and political analyst. “He’s one of voices of reason in Likud; he’s not a hothead like Danny Danon.” The president-elect’s views on the peace process are not born of hatred for Arabs, as his voting record and his statements as Knesset speaker attest, and the Arabs and the world at large know that, he said.
Even the editorial board at Haaretz has sympathies for Rivlin. It endorsed him for president before Tuesday’s election, together with former Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner. “For years, Rivlin has preached the need for cooperation between Jews and Arabs. And as Knesset speaker, he extended a hand to the Arab factions, in sharp contrast to his colleagues on the right,” an editorial read last week. “He opposed the wave of nationalist legislation in the previous Knesset, and paid for this stance in the Likud party primary. He has always maintained independent views.”