In the history of the disengagement from Gaza lies a tale of two Israeli politicians. The first has nearly completed his term as president of the State of Israel. The second will hopefully be chosen by the Knesset today to succeed him.
As chairman of the Labor party at the beginning of 2005, Shimon Peres led Labor to join the government of his political rival, Ariel Sharon of Likud.
Not long before, Sharon had announced his intention for Israel to completely withdraw from Gaza, and in addition to the Jewish communities that would be destroyed there, to destroy a number of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria – the disengagement plan.
The disengagement did not fit the negotiated-peace framework which Peres had long advocated. Nonetheless, it fit with Peres’s belief that Israel must retain the moral high ground in the eyes of the international community. This, according to Peres, was to be achieved by making concessions to the Palestinian Authority, even if they are not reciprocated.
The disengagement was to be one of the largest unilateral concessions Israel had ever made in the pursuit of peace.
Though joining Sharon’s government was controversial for the Labor party, the former Ben-Gurion protégé explained, “I will not forgive myself if, because of our hesitations... the disengagement is not implemented.”
At the time, it was suggested that upon joining the government, Peres might become the “disengagement minister.”
Though he wound up vice prime minister, Peres was nonetheless active in promoting the move. Following the disengagement, Peres deserted Labor to join Sharon’s new Kadima party. Following Kadima’s victory, he continued to serve as vice prime minister under Ehud Olmert. In 2007, Peres was chosen by the Knesset to succeed the disgraced Moshe Katzav as Israel’s ninth president.
WHEN SHARON announced the disengagement plan, Reuven Rivlin was serving as speaker of the Knesset. Rivlin had ranked very low in the Likud’s primaries (he was number 37 on the party’s list), but had nonetheless obtained the prestigious post of speaker. He credited this to the prime minister, of whom he had long been a loyal supporter.
“Only because of him am I speaker of the Knesset,” Rivlin commented prior to the disengagement. “Only because he led us [the Likud], did we bring 38 MKs into the Knesset.”
Despite his past allegiance to Sharon and the traditional neutrality of the post of Knesset speaker, Rivlin fiercely fought the disengagement, which he viewed as a betrayal of Likud’s principles. In a letter to the Likud’s Central Committee, Rivlin said he “was disgusted” over the plan, describing it as “scores of technical articles, economic and bureaucratic, whose meaning is to uproot everything.”
Later, in a speech to Likud activists, Rivlin went as far as to call for the removal “of guests” from the Likud – a reference to Likud MK Omri Sharon, if not also his father.
As Rivlin explained in an interview at the time, he opposed the disengagement for the very reasons Peres believed it was necessary: “By evacuating just one Jewish village in Judea-Samaria-Gaza, we will be telling the whole world and the Arabs in particular that we are prepared to act in this way, which is very dangerous... The entire world will think that Israel is prepared to transfer territory without [receiving] anything in return, which means that for a peace agreement the Jewish state will also be prepared to return... to the 1967 [lines].”
While Peres hoped that the disengagement would be the beginning, Rivlin feared that very prospect, warning, “No one should delude himself: this is only the beginning.”
Rivlin, unlike Peres and many of Rivlin’s Likud colleagues, did not join Kadima. Though the Likud earned only 12 seats in the next Knesset, Rivlin retained his Knesset seat. The post of Knesset speaker went to MK Dalia Itzik, who had left Labor to join Kadima.
Rivlin then competed with Peres for the presidency and lost.
AS PRESIDENT, many see Peres as ambassador par excellence for Israel. Not only can he mingle with heads of state, diplomats and international celebrities, he presents Israel as they want the world to see it – a modern-day Jesus, ever sacrificing for the prospect of peace with its neighbor.
Haaretz journalist Asher Schechter aptly captured this view of Peres, writing that “the president’s role has never been more glamorous... Who else could convince the world that Israel is a peace-seeking, fun-loving, developed country?”
Unlike Peres, during his second term as speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin continued to advocate against territorial withdrawals and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Now that Rivlin seems to be the candidate favored by the public and more importantly the Knesset to become Israel’s next president, many on the Left have begun to worry.
Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, for example, wrote that Rivlin would be an “international liability because of his opposition to Palestinian statehood.”
Writing under the title, “Rivlin as president is a recipe for disaster,” veteran Israeli journalist Ari Shavit predicted that “Reuven Rivlin won’t know how to express the spirit and values of the peace-seeking Israel... The very election of a Greater-Israel man for president will cause Israel severe diplomatic damage.”
(Note: “Greater-Israel” is not this author’s translation, but the unfortunately accepted mistranslation of the Hebrew term which means “complete” or “integral” land of Israel).
Thus, despite the fact that “Rivlin may be an affectionate person who respects civil rights,” Shavit fears that “his Revisionist [Jabotinskyite] presidency will worsen Israel’s... status.”
To an extent, these criticisms are correct.
Rivlin will not use the presidency to draw Israeli and international attention to the peace process. He will not be the object of praise and admiration of an international diplomatic corps looking to bolster the Israeli peace camp.
If his tenure as Knesset speaker is any guide, when a policy is proposed which pushes Israel toward extreme social division, which involves uprooting thousands of citizens, which jeopardizes Israel’s security and which sacrifices the heart of the homeland for nothing, President Rivlin will likely be the first man to speak out against it.
Yet at the same time, as Shavit and even former Labor chairwoman MK Shelly Yacimovich have admitted, Rivlin will also be there to speak out on behalf of Israel’s minorities, in protection of their civil rights. Yacimovich even endorsed Rivlin for this reason.
In this way, Rivlin will be a president who will unify the people Israel instead of promoting divisive policies that harm minorities, be they settlers or Arabs. He will represent Israel as it is and not the conjured-up Israel that is itching to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and establish a Palestinian state, if only the settlers would let them.
Rivlin will represent Israel’s true nature as a Jewish state intimately connected to the Jewish homeland, with freedom and civil rights for all citizens, including its non-Jewish ones.
That may not be the president foreign dignitaries would choose to represent them in Israel, but it will be the president that appropriately represents the people of Israel to the world and to each other. And that is a president Israel would be lucky to have.
The author is an attorney and a member of the Likud Central Committee.