Politics: Heart and soul

MK Reuven 'Ruby' Rivlin - slated to be voted in by the Knesset as its speaker on Monday - says he puts his mission ahead of personal gain.

March 12, 2009 21:37
reuven rivlin in his podium seat at knesset 298

reuven rivlin in seat 248 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

One of the high points of the Book of Esther, that Jews around the world read in synagogues this week, comes when Mordechai tells the heroine that the reason she ascended to a position of power might have been in order to save the Jewish people. A Likud supporter told Likud MK Reuven Rivlin this week that his story was similar to Esther's but with a twist: Maybe he did not ascend to a position of power in the presidential election a year and a half ago, because he would be needed to save Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's nascent government, and keep his party - perhaps even the country - united. And, indeed, Rivlin was as active as ever during the Purim holiday this week, putting out fires inside Likud, and mediating between Netanyahu and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to reach a compromise on a candidate for justice minister that could allow Netanyahu to form a government next week. Rivlin is expected to be formally voted in by the Knesset as its speaker on Monday, returning to the post he held from 2003 to 2006. He intended to use that role as a stepping stone to the presidency, but after the Likud fell to only 12 seats, he could not defeat Shimon Peres in the June 2007 race, and he ended up giving a tearful concession speech that reminded people that he wears his heart on his sleeve. That inability to hide his emotions has made Rivlin respected as an honest politician who can smooth out differences between his colleagues, because he understands their feelings. Those skills will be especially important in leading the Knesset at a time when the Right and Left have stopped cooperating, and have returned to the opposite sides of the political battlefield that they were on during the country's most tense times. This week alone, Rivlin persuaded Lieberman to replace Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, in order to allow anti-Friedmann MKs Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin to join the cabinet. He also tried to mediate between Netanyahu and his Likud nemesis, Silvan Shalom. And he was apparently also involved in other reconciliation efforts that haven't yet hit the headlines. RIVLIN DECLINED to go into details about how he reached a deal with Lieberman. But he joked that because Purim was celebrated in Jerusalem on Wednesday, and in the rest of the country the day before, he met with Lieberman on Tuesday in Jerusalem and on Wednesday in Tel Aviv. "I told Lieberman that if Friedmann is seen as a bull in a china shop, but his policies are important to you, you can find a different candidate who would keep his policies and manage to keep the Friedmannism without Friedmann," Rivlin said. The efforts to mediate between Netanyahu and Shalom seem like more of a challenge, after they slammed each other in closed conversations this week. But Rivlin has bridged many gaps in the past that appeared unbridgeable. "Most of the time when people are fighting, both sides want to reach an agreement, but if they don't, no go-between can succeed," Rivlin said. "Sometimes people have to be comforted and persuaded to put aside their personal considerations, however important they are. I try my best, and if people want to succeed in settling their differences, they will; and if they don't, they won't." RIVLIN HAS been resolving disputes in the Likud for 20 years. He said the worst rift he succeeded in healing was in 1991, between then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and his foreign minister, David Levy, after Shamir decided to take deputy foreign minister Netanyahu to the 1991 Madrid peace conference and leave Levy at home. When Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, Rivlin frequently mediated between him and Levy. Netanyahu sent him on long drives to Levy's home in Beit She'an on several occasions with important messages, to ease tensions between the two. When Ariel Sharon formed his cabinet, Rivlin found a way for Netanyahu, Shalom and Ehud Olmert to coexist, even though Sharon had promised all three a top cabinet post when there were only two available. Rivlin's solution was for Sharon to appoint Olmert industry, trade and labor minister, and give him the title of vice prime minister. Little did Rivlin know at the time, but that title that he obtained for Olmert as a consolation prize would enable Olmert to become prime minister after Sharon's debilitating stroke. Rivlin's role in Olmert's ascendancy was especially ironic, considering the feud between the two of them that has stretched on for decades. More recently, Rivlin succeeded in patching up Netanyahu's long-standing differences with both Meridor and Begin. The latter, who lives in Rivlin's apartment building in Jerusalem's Yafei Nof neighborhood, only returned to politics at Rivlin's insistence. After Shalom compared Netanyahu to Syrian President Bashar Assad in July 2007, Rivlin worked out a deal with Netanyahu that he would see Shalom as his No. 2, regardless of how well he would do in the Likud primary. After Shalom only won the seventh slot on the Likud list, Netanyahu leaked to the press that Shalom was his leading candidate for foreign minister, in the event that the party kept the portfolio. But since that job will be going to Lieberman, Shalom and Netanyahu are fighting again, and Rivlin is back on the mediation circuit. Rivlin's associates said he possesses several qualities that make him a good mediator: his powers of persuasion, his ability to think outside the box, his sense of humor and the trust people are willing to put in him, because he has repeatedly neglected his own personal interest to help others. "Ruby has a comforting presence," an official close to him said. "He is a human being more than anything. Other politicians are better at making speeches because they are political robots, but Ruby speaks and acts from the heart, and that's clear to everyone." JOBS THAT Rivlin wanted for himself in the past, but never ended up getting, include Jerusalem mayor and justice minister. He was prevented from receiving the latter because of a politically-motivated investigation against him that began and ended under mysterious circumstances. He lost the former because he wanted to show respect to longtime Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek by not running against him when he was the Likud's top official in the capital, but Olmert swept in, insisted on running and defeated Kollek. Rivlin's most devastating loss was that of the presidency - to Shimon Peres - 50 years after his father, Prof. Yosef-Yoel Rivlin, lost to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Assuming the 85-year-old Peres stays healthy, the next presidential election will not be held until June 2014, but Rivlin's aides say he is healthy (he takes strenuous walks in the Jerusalem forest to keep fit), and that in 2014, he will be a sprightly 75 years old. BUT FOR now, Rivlin is focused on leading the Knesset. He will continue the projects he began in his previous term, including the Knesset Channel, the parliamentary research center, the facility's expansion and the establishment of an ethical code. He will also keep serving as a mediator. If he continues to do that well, and if the inevitable political twists and turns go his way, he could eventually rise to power, following in the footsteps of other Jewish leaders, including Queen Esther. But Rivlin said he did not like that comparison. "Esther at first tried to avoid her mission," he said. "Whenever I have had a choice between an important mission and my own personal gain, I have chosen to take the mission on behalf of my people."

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