by Marsha B. Cohen
Reuven Rivlin has just been elected Israel’s 10th president. A member of Israel’s parliamentary body since 1988, he served as Speaker of the Knesset from 2003-06 and again from 2009-13. Today, Israel’s parliamentarians, by secret ballot, elected him to a 7-year term after two rounds of voting.
A native born Israeli who speaks fluent Arabic, Rivlin (known as “Rubi” or “Ruvi”) comes from a family that claims 50,000 members worldwide, 35,000 of whom live in Israel. Rivlin’s father, Yosef Yoel Rivlin, was a scholar of Semitic languages who translated the Qur’an and One Thousand and One Nights into Hebrew. His cousin, Lilly Rivlin, who spent most of her life in the U.S., is a progressive writer and film maker. Her 2006 film, “Can You Hear Me?: Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight For Peace,” documented the joint activist efforts of Israeli and Palestinian women.
There are many paradoxes in the views of this right-wing Likudnik — hardly known outside of Israel — that explain why some of the most progressive Israelis respect him and believe he will be a suitable nonpartisan representative of the State of Israel in his largely ceremonial role as president.
1. Rivlin believes in democracy, free speech and political pluralism. He has vehemently opposed the witch hunts targeting progressive Israeli organizations, and resisted demands by right-wing politicians that the activities of left-leaning human rights groups in Israel be halted and outlawed. According to Dimi Reider of the progressive Israeli news site, +972:
As Speaker, Rivlin’s commitment to parliamentary democracy (and democracy in general) saw him turn time and again against his own party and its allies, stalling most of the anti-democratic legislation pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu, while at the same time trying to instruct his fellow right-wing legislators about the dangers of nationalist populism.
“Woe betide the Jewish democratic state that turns freedom of expression into a civil offense,” Rivlin wrote in an article slamming the Boycott Law passed by the Knesset in 2011. The legislation prohibited advocating any sort of boycott of Israeli products or institutions — economic, cultural, or educational — and made any person or entity proposing an Israel-related boycott subject to prosecution and liable for paying compensation, regardless of any actual loss or damage. Left-wing Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy praised Rivlin’s courageous stance, berating the reputedly “dovish” Shimon Peres who defeated Rivlin’s 2007 presidency bid:
Rivlin has been revealed as Israel’s honorary president; Peres, as its shameful one. The man from the right wing dared do what the man supposedly from the left did not. In the test of courage and honesty, the highest test of any elected official, Rivlin defeated Peres by a resounding knock-out.
(Earlier this year, in mid-February, Israel’s High Court considered a petition seeking to overturn the Boycott Law, but did not issue a ruling.)
2. Rivlin has consistently condemned the anti-Arab racism pervading Israeli society. He was incensed after learning that Arab construction workers on the Knesset grounds had red Xs painted on their protective helmets to distinguish them from foreign workers, and insisted on the immediate removal of the distinguishing marks. “We cannot allow the use of any markings that could be seen as a differentiation between people on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion,” he declared.
Rivlin has castigated the race-baiting and Islamophobia exhibited by supporters of the Beitar soccer team and the team’s discrimination against Muslim players. “Imagine the outcry if groups in England or Germany said that Jews could not play for them,” he said. He has also opposed proposals for the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem by radical Jewish settlers and condemned “price tag” attacks. In September 2013, Rivlin criticized the election slogan “Judaize Jerusalem” of the far-right United Jerusalem list, calling it a “disgrace” and “incitement,” and called for an investigation over whether the slogan constituted a criminal offense.
3. Rivlin opposes making civic and political rights for Israeli Arabs (or, as many prefer to be known, “Palestinian citizens of Israel”) contingent upon their serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “These calls are populist at best and carry a tone of incitement at worst,” he declared. At the same time, Rivlin endorsed civilian service projects that would help alleviate the high unemployment rate among young Arab men and improve the quality of life in their own communities. “I believe that the creation of a civil service layout within the Arab sector is a step that could benefit the Arab sector and the Israeli society at large. The Arab sector needs manpower and young volunteers can support that cause,” he said.
4. An unabashed proponent of the one state solution, Rivlin advocates giving full Israeli civil and political rights to West Bank Palestinians in a single-state scenario. Most Israeli liberals and hardliners alike oppose any one-state solution that would make Palestinians Israeli citizens. They complain that Rivlin’s stance would create a situation in which Israel could not be both Jewish and democratic. That’s because allowed to vote, Arabs would would eventually outnumber Jews and Israel could no longer be a “Jewish state.” To prevent this, most liberals still advocate a two-state solution, while right-wing hardliners want to expel as many Arabs as possible from the West Bank and Gaza while depriving those who remain of Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, the notion that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may no longer be viable is gaining traction on Israel’s progressive left.
5. Rivlin has pledged to Arab citizens of “green line” Israel that they won’t be forced to become part of a Palestinian state in the event of a “land swap” deal that exchanges Israeli Arab cities and towns for Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. In 2009, Rivlin infuriated Israeli hardliners when he made his first official visit as Knesset Speaker to the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, Israel’s second-largest Arab municipality in “green line” Israel. Rivlin assured the town’s residents they would not be subjected to “ethnic cleansing.”
6. Rivlin defended the rights of Arab Knesset members when parliamentarians from his own party and others were determined to take them away. In 2010, he joined prominent civil libertarians in objecting to Knesset Member (MK) Hanin Zouabi being stripped of her parliamentary privileges. As punishment for her involvement in the Gaza flotilla’s attempt to break the Israeli boycott of Gaza, MKs voted to strip her of her right to leave the country, take away her diplomatic passport, and deny her legal fee payments, refusing to allow Zouabi to say anything in her own defense. “Let her speak!” roared Rivlin at the shrieking MKs. Although disagreeing with Zouabi’s stance, Rivlin upheld her right to defend herself, stating, “I believe that everyone should have the right to speak their minds, even if what they say hurts me.” (In 2008, Rivlin had also opposed — and temporarily thwarted — taking away the pension of MK Azmi Bishara of the Arab Balad party, who fled Israel when he was charged with treason. Rivlin argued that until Bishara was convicted of a crime, his pension was untouchable.)
Before today’s election, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hawkish, Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu party, stated he would not support Rivlin because of his opposition to creating committees for investigating human rights organizations, and Rivlin’s defense of Arab parliamentarians’ rights.
7. Rivlin disapproves of Netanyahu’s ongoing criticism of the negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program. “We must not contradict the United States regarding the deal with Iran,” Rivlin wrote in a post to his Facebook page. “A conflict with the United States is against Israel’s vital interests.”
8. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did everything he could to prevent Rivlin’s election. After preventing the re-election of Rivlin as Knesset Speaker last year, Netanyahu tried to thwart Rivlin’s ascent to the presidency by frantically searching for a viable alternative candidate; proposing the outright abolition of the position of Israel’s president; and trying to postpone the presidential election. In a 2010 interview Rivlin had criticized Netanyahu’s leadership style:
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s worldview states that ‘the majority can do anything, that the leader can demand whatever he wishes of those who entered the Knesset because of him and he can force his opinion on them.’ That is something that can greatly harm democracy and lower the Knesset’s standing to rock bottom.”
9. Rivlin has attracted both respect and support from members of Israeli opposition parties. MK Ilan Gilon of the Meretz party declared he would be supporting Rivlin while other Meretz members took an anyone-but-Rivlin stance. Even before the withdrawal of long-time Labor party stalwart Benjamin Eliezer from the presidential race due to financial impropriety investigations, Labor MK Shelley Yachimovich announced she would be crossing party lines to vote for Rivlin because he was “the most appropriate and suitable candidate for the position.” Her words of praise did not stop there:
He is an exemplary democrat, honest and uncorrupted, modest in his personal manner and statesman-like in his conceptions and public conduct. One doesn’t have to speculate on how he will behave as president. Even as someone from the right-wing, whose opinions are often the opposite of mine, he passed the test, standing like a solid rock in defense of democracy.”
Photo Credit: J-Street.