rivlin claps knesset 224.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A year and a half ago, the now defunct Koteret magazine was the first to report on MK Reuven ("Ruby") Rivlin's plans to run for president. At the time, the idea seemed so far-fetched that an underline of the report read, "If Reuven Rivlin becomes president, who needs a president?"
Rivlin's image was that of an old-fashioned political hack - a Jerusalem character always ready with a good joke or story, a former chairman of the Betar Jerusalem Football Club, a typical product of Menachem Begin's old Herut Party - sticking to his outdated, right-wing ideals. The position he held at the time of the report was Knesset Speaker, definitely the high point of his political career, after which (like most former speakers, with the notable exception of Yitzhak Shamir) the only thing he could look forward to was a comfortable retirement.
When Rivlin began his hopeless campaign, no one could have imagined the eruption of accusations that were soon-to-be leveled at President Moshe Katsav. On the contrary, the soft-spoken, uncontroversial incumbent was credited by many for having returned a sense of respectability to the institution that had taken a battering during the tempestuous years of Ezer Weitzman.
Even typically critical columnists praised the president's honorable conduct and his efforts to preserve unity and social cohesion in difficult times. The expectation was that his successor would be a consensual, respected senior citizen, able to build on Katsav's achievements and complete the transformation of the presidency into a national focal point, far above the petty political divide.
Lovable though he may be, even among many of his political opponents, "Ruby" just didn't seem to be presidential material. Furthermore, the dispute over disengagement - which Rivlin bitterly opposed - had estranged him from his political patron, the all-powerful Ariel Sharon, with whom he was no longer on speaking terms. It was unimaginable for the next president to be elected without Sharon's nod, especially when all the polls predicted his landslide re-election. After Sharon's stroke, chances that Rivlin, a member of the decimated Likud Party, would succeed in this endeavor seemed even slimmer.
Yet now, he's suddenly the odds-on favorite.
The secret ballot for president is notoriously difficult to predict; nor is a date even set for a vote. But at the moment, it's hard to see who among Katsav's possible successors would be able to pose a threat to Rivlin's apparent lead. The current scandal and the weakness of Ehud Olmert's government are deterring potential candidates like Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Shimon Peres and Professor Amnon Rubinstein - each of whom could have been endorsed by Kadima - from entering the fray.
Rivlin's only official rival so far, Labor MK Collette Avital, might belong to a larger party and be a member of the coalition, but no one is rating her chances of success. Even her colleagues in Labor have yet to offer their backing.
HOW HAS Rivlin managed to emerge as presidential front-runner? The answer lies in his strategy.
This is the first Knesset in Israel's history that has no single dominant party. Even Kadima's 29 seats don't give it a quarter of the house. In the past, presidential campaigns were waged by the major parties, who set up special task forces aimed at gaining support for their candidates. Lobbyists and PR experts were hired not only to build the necessary Knesset majority, but also to generate public support for their candidates.
Rivlin has been doing the exact opposite. For months he has been discreetly approaching MKs from every party, and gradually gaining their quiet support. Even Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who desperately wants Rivlin to win as a boost to his efforts to resurrect the party, is being very careful not to endorse him too openly. Netanyahu realizes that many MKs might be put off from voting for Rivlin if he were identified as Netanyahu's choice.
The structure of the 17th Knesset - a multitude of fractious small- medium-sized, undisciplined parties - is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a politician like Rivlin. Very few MKs see him as a threat. Whatever their political views, most of them like him and know that, as president, he would be accessible. As Knesset Speaker, occasionally he used his position to express his beliefs, but he was scrupulously fair in managing the Knesset proceedings. Most of the MKs, including those of the Arab parties, got on with him well and compare him favorably with the prickly conduct of current Speaker Dalya Itzik.
MK Muhammad Barakeh of Hadash, who was one of Rivlin's deputies in the last Knesset, said this week, "Whatever happens, I know that the next president isn't going to hold my political views."
So why not vote for his friend, "Ruby"? Especially since his election would be a political humiliation for Olmert.
The prime minister is in a difficult dilemma here. Originally he backed Lau, whom he would probably support if he does run. Olmert also tried unsuccessfully to recruit Amnon Rubinstein. Nor would he mind seeing Peres in the presidential mansion - though he realizes that backing Peres would be risky.
Rivlin has only been a rival of Olmert's for decades, both in Likud and Jerusalem politics. But even within Kadima, Rivlin has supporters, notable among them Coalition Chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki, the man Olmert would normally expect to be marshalling support for the prime minister's candidate.
If Olmert doesn't succeed in roping in an unexpected super-star - by, for instance, organizing an express aliya for Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel - he might have no choice but to swallow his pride and go along with Rivlin.
Aside from playing it safe, taking such a step would have two additional advantages: Olmert could portray himself as a leader who prefers national unity to political partisanship; and he could to some extent minimize the capital that Netanyahu might gain from Rivlin's victory.
Peres's surprise defeat in 2000 sounded the death knell for Ehud Barak's premiership, and was the first clear signal that Sharon - who had engineered Katsav's campaign - was on his way to the top. Olmert knows the disastrous effect a similar defeat could have on his own prospects of survival. He may have no choice but to adopt the adage, "If you can't beat him, endorse him."
President Ruby. We should start getting used to the sound of it.