Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is a man on a mission – to hold the record for serving in that position for more years than anyone else.

He only needs three more years to beat Yosef Sprinzak (1949-1959) and Kadish Luz (1959-1969). Unlike the two Mapai Knesset speakers, Rivlin had a break in the middle, while the Likud was in the opposition.

While Rivlin has never hidden his aspiration to be elected president, he’s focusing on the task at hand: keeping his high spot on the Likud’s list for the 19th Knesset so he can be re-appointed as speaker.

As such, Rivlin has stepped back into the political fray, and has plenty to say this week about trends within his own party – like groups pulling the Likud to the Right, or MKs baiting their Arab counterparts – and others – such as convicted criminals returning to politics, recruiting “stars” for party lists and using gimmicks to get press.

You've already been Knesset speaker twice. Isn’t it time to give someone else a turn?

I don’t hide the fact that I want to continue being Knesset speaker. I am committed to keep improving the Knesset, and I have made that known and clear.

[Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] offered me a ministerial position at the beginning of the 18th Knesset, and I chose to be speaker.

What about your presidential ambitions? President Shimon Peres’s term ends in July 2014 – do you plan to run?


In 2007, Netanyahu asked me to run against Peres for president to make the Likud look relevant, despite the fact that we have 12 seats. If the Likud still thinks I’m a good candidate and people in the Knesset want me to be president, then I think it’s a very good job.

When president Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi was reelected [in 1957], my father [Yosef Yoel Rivlin] was supposed to run. I think he deserved it, but Ben-Tzvi was elected. If you’re chosen, that means the Knesset wants you. Of course, I’m not talking about anyone specific.

At the moment, though, the most pressing thing is to be elected to the 19th Knesset and serve a third term as speaker. It’s not just about the record; I believe there is a value to me continuing as speaker, and I believe it will happen.

In the Knesset, I can make reforms happen according to my own world view and without pressure from one person or another. I didn’t even participate in most Likud faction meetings. I tried not to be part of the political process, although, at the same time, I am one of 120 MKs. I am still a politician who needs to be elected, so I have to have a message.

Do you think your efforts to stay out of politics could hurt you in the primary? For example, some Likud MKs are trying to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) from running in the current election, but you have said she has a right to be in the Knesset.

This is really a legal issue. [Arab MKs] were chosen by Israeli citizens according to law, and these are their representatives.

The people who were elected have to serve their supporters who sent them to the Knesset – as long as that service is within the law.

The minute an MK enters the Knesset, he has full immunity. Otherwise, everyone will throw each other out, and we won’t have any MKs left. The Knesset cannot judge its own members; we have an attorney- general for that. He must decide if Arab MKs’ behavior on national security or interests broke the law. Are they inciting or committing treason? The attorney-general decides.

Nobody really thinks they'll successfully kick Arabs out of the Knesset. They just know that’s what voters want to hear – so they act in a way that opposes democracy.

I don’t want to name names, but the MKs who do this must know that their actions have an opposite effect. If there are petitions against Zoabi, she then goes to her voters and says “look, they want to get rid of me, not MK Ahmed Tibi [UAL-Ta’al] or MK Muhammad Barakei [Hadash], because I really represent you.” These attempts to remove MKs improve them in their voters’ eyes. In every Knesset, the extremist camps argue with each other. It’s not a good thing, but the extreme sides balance each other out.

Do you think there’s a problem with an extremist side pushing Likud to the Right?

There will always be fanatics. They never choose me, and I’m glad they don’t.

Likud is a party of intellectual pluralism.

Not everyone is a follower of [Likud ideological forbear] Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Some people like Jabotinsky but are more pragmatic, like Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor. It is important that he is there on one side, and I don’t want to say who is on the other.

Likud is a political home with a supermarket of thought, but the consensus that unites us is the Land of Israel. We are a whole that is bigger than its parts.

The right-wing elements in Likud care about the Land of Israel – but I wonder if they can protect it as well as I do. [Rivlin points to a painting in his office.] This picture of Jabotinsky says “Zion is totally ours.” I am sure that no lover of the Land of Israel would not choose me to be in the next Knesset.

My stances are so clear that [Manhigut Yehudit leader] Moshe Feiglin’s people tried to get me to sign a paper that says I will protect the Land of Israel before the 17th Knesset. I said, “If you want me to sign, that means you don’t trust me.” Other MKs signed Feiglin’s paper, and then went to Kadima, which is for splitting the Land.

They need to elect people based on ideology.

Maybe they think I’m too democratic, but I am democratic without losing a drop of my faith. I love Israel not because I hate others, but because this is my Land. My family wasn’t brought here 203 years ago by threats, but by the faith that Israel must return to its land. I will never lose my democratic views; they are totally connected to the Jewish state, which cannot exist without democracy.

Do you think changing the system of government would protect democracy?

Changing the system of government is just an election slogan. We can’t run a country with such a pluralist society without a parliamentary democracy, because we don’t have a constitution. The reason we don’t have a constitution is because we are Jewish and democratic. Arabs oppose a constitution that would say it’s Jewish, because they say a democracy is a state of all its citizens.

Haredim say if Israel is a Jewish state, the laws must come from Halacha [Jewish law], from their rabbis.

One rule that needs to be changed is that the leader of the party with the most votes should be prime minister. If one party gets 31 seats and the other 30, the one with 31 should form the government. This will bring people back to voting for an ideology and not a sector.

In the past, people voted Left or Right – or right or wrong. People wanted to help their sector, but they put the country first, and chose [prime ministers] Menachem Begin or David Ben-Gurion. If the law requires the leader of the biggest party to be prime minister, people will think before voting.

Now, anyone on the Right can get away with giving a vote to a sectorial party because they said they would support Netanyahu after the election. Then people wonder – who are these hooligans who got into the Knesset?

Well, who are the hooligans who got into the Knesset? This has been an action-packed Knesset with water-throwing, deodorant-spraying and other interesting activities.

I had high hopes and expectations for the new MKs in the 18th Knesset. I hoped they would raise the Knesset’s status in the public’s eyes. Nevertheless, people with excellent credentials – army officers, senior bureaucrats, police officers, Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] agents, members of the press – but instead of improving the Knesset, they stooped to the level that puts it in a negative light.

After 25 years in the Knesset, I know that passing a law is hard work, takes a long time and doesn’t always succeed. People don’t take the time because they know if they use a gimmick they’ll get headlines.

I don’t blame the press because they write the truth – but they could emphasize positive things. MKs think, “Why work, I’ll just find a gimmick!” We need an ethical code to tell MKs they cannot get away with what they’re doing; they’re not just embarrassing themselves, but the whole Knesset.

Every citizen should tell parties they will not vote for them if they have bad candidates on their list.

What about politicians who already exhibited bad behavior, like Shas leader Arye Deri or former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who were convicted of crimes?

People ask if politicians who committed crimes can come back to the Knesset. The law allows it. The law is that someone who paid his debt to society can come back, but there are public norms and legal norms.

If the law allows a politician to return after being convicted of a crime, it is up to the public to decide if they should vote for him or not.

The Knesset, which is responsible for the connection between the public and its representatives, needs to hold a deep discussion next term on the norms and the law.

We must ask: Does the moral norm match the law?

A lot of new political “stars” are being introduced in this election. What advice would you give them before starting work at the Knesset?

First of all, I hope all the new MKs will keep their integrity as they did in their work until this point. Mayors, security officials, people who led a group shouldn’t change their character. There have been a lot of professors in the Knesset, and some were bored and suffered, but others excelled.

I hope they know that the main job of the Knesset is to legislate and supervise government activities, not just being a minister or prime minister. Many of them will be very disappointed when they aren’t immediately made ministers. If they’re lucky and their party helps form the government, they can be ministers, but they were elected first and foremost to be MKs. If you disrespect the Knesset, you are disrespecting the public.

The Knesset chooses the prime minister, the judicial selection committee, and authorizes laws. Without the Knesset, the government cannot pass a budget and would have to go to elections. We have arguments that take place in every home in Israel, but we make the decisions in the end. The Oslo Accords were approved by one vote.

Begin was in the opposition for 29 years before he became prime minister. It is very important to become prime minister from the opposition. Netanyahu was much better this time, because he was the opposition leader before. Only a responsible opposition leader can be a very good prime minister.

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