Politics: Presidential visions

The leading candidates in this week's upcoming elections presented to 'The Jerusalem Post' their vision of what the President’s Office will be like under their leadership.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On Tuesday, 120 MKs will elect Israel’s 10th president out of six candidates: MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud), MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), Dalia Itzik, Dan Shechtman and Dalia Dorner.
Anything could happen, since the vote is by private ballot and many lawmakers are keeping mum about their plans.
There will most likely be two rounds to the election, because the unusually high number of candidates will make it difficult for anyone to get a majority. The second round will pit the two candidates with the most votes against each other.
Rivlin is expected to reach the second round easily and Ben-Eliezer and Itzik are seen as front-runners to face him. At that point, the result will remain to be seen.
The leading candidates this week presented to The Jerusalem Post their vision of what the President’s Office will be like under their leadership.
Reuven Rivlin: A bridge between Jewish and democratic
Rivlin, 74, has been an MK in the Likud since 1988, with a four-year break when he served as communications minister and Knesset speaker. Born in the capital to a family that arrived here in 1809, Rivlin identifies strongly with the city, often calling himself “a man of Jerusalem.”
To Rivlin, the president’s job is to serve as a bridge.
“Every president has his own agenda and his own shoes; I don’t plan to fill anyone else’s shoes. I personally see the President’s Office as an opportunity to promote the basic values that guided me as a public servant,” he explained Thursday.
Rivlin said that, as president, he plans to link Israel’s Jewishness and democratic character.
While few doubt Rivlin’s democratic bona fides – as Knesset speaker he was considered especially fair to parties representing minority groups – the candidate courted controversy for his definition of Jewishness, when an interview from 1989 came to light in which he said Reform Judaism is “idol worship” and “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”
Rivlin did not directly respond to whether he still feels that way or if he would call a Reform rabbi “rabbi,” giving a more general answer. “I respect any person chosen to lead his or her community, and God forbid I invalidate him because he is from one stream or another,” he said. “The President’s Office represents all streams and denominations in society. The job of the president is to bridge conflicts, not create conflicts.”
If the government makes a decision on the topic of different Jewish denominations, it will surely lead to a major public argument, and the president’s job is to moderate and soften the discourse, Rivlin added.
At the same time, the Likud MK mentioned cultivating a connection to the Diaspora as one of the important jobs of the president, saying anyone in the role must deepen cooperation between Jews abroad and those in Israel, and work on creating stronger linkages between young Jewish people around the world and those in the Jewish state.
“The president is the face of the State of Israel around the world, not a representative of a specific ideology but of the collective creativity and history of the Jewish people,” Rivlin said.
The president’s job is not only about building bridges between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, but about connecting Israelis from all walks of life, he said. “As a Jew living in a democratic state, I believe the President’s Office is the place that can translate the vision of partnership between the different groups in Israeli society to a plan of action. As I always say, we were not condemned to live together, but we are all meant to live together.”
According to Rivlin, the level of contention in Israeli society requires a strong infrastructure for coexistence and the President’s Office is a place for young people from different groups – haredi, religious-Zionist and secular, residents of the periphery and the Center, Arabs and Jews – to meet and, yes, bridge their differences.
Unity within Israel, he added, is also necessary to building bridges between Israel and its neighbors.
Of course, Rivlin’s idea of what that last bridge should be like differs from what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says in public. Rivlin does not believe in a two-state solution, advocating granting Palestinians citizenship instead.
Still, Rivlin reaffirmed that he does not plan to outflank the prime minister from the Right, saying the president should avoid politicization of his role so that all Israelis can identify with him.
“The president must serve as a guide and social shock absorber at difficult times, and someone who can bring understanding so we can continue to live together, in one Israeli experience, even while we argue,” he said.
Rivlin’s disagreements with Netanyahu don’t end there – the two have had a contentious relationship for years, leading the latter to wait until the candidates’ list was officially closed to give an unenthusiastic endorsement to the only Likud member in the running.
Sources said Netanyahu was concerned that a president with whom he does not get along could recommend someone else to form the next government if, for example, the Likud is the biggest faction in the Knesset but another party leader is backed by more MKs.
Rivlin did not quite lay those fears to rest when asked about a theoretical scenario in which the Likud gets 10 seats more than Labor in an election, but 70 MKs recommend opposition leader Isaac Herzog of Labor as the next prime minister. “The initiative to declare the head of the largest party as the obvious candidate to form the government was discussed in the past, with the goal to bring stability to political blocs,” Rivlin pointed out.
“I understand the logic in the initiative, but today it is the Knesset’s job to hold a deep, broad discussion of the constitutional question before any change is made,” he said.
In other words, in that scenario, Rivlin would declare Herzog prime minister – unless the Knesset amends the law before the next election.
This, of course, is how Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, when the Likud had one seat fewer than Kadima.
Dalia Itzik: Israel needs a woman’s touch
Itzik, 61, was an MK in Labor and Kadima from 1992 to 2012, serving in the Environment, Industry and Trade and Communications ministries before taking up the posts of opposition leader, Knesset speaker and interim president. Born in Jerusalem, where she lives today, Itzik led the Jerusalem Teachers’ Union and was the capital’s deputy mayor, before moving on to national politics.
Itzik believes she has more energy than the five other candidates, because she is the youngest. She is also the only candidate with experience as president, having served in an interim capacity in 2007 when Moshe Katsav suspended himself for legal reasons.
But her short campaign has highlighted the opportunity for the Knesset to elect Israel’s first woman president. For Itzik, electing a woman would be more than just a symbolic gesture; it would be a strategic decision that could help Israel’s relationship with the world.
“Women speak in a softer tone and are better at making compromises and conceding rather than insisting on winning arguments,” she said in a short interview. “The personal touch I can provide is important. A different style would be good for Israel in the world; people would say that Israel now has a different kind of face.”
Electing a woman could prepare Israel for an era that could soon begin in the US – as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is favored to win the next American election in 2016.
Itzik said she has maintained ties with Clinton, who she hosted as acting president. She also met many times with then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and then-House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“We see in the world that women are advancing and even becoming defense ministers throughout Europe,” she said. “As a woman, I would have an even greater responsibility to succeed, because if I don’t people will say, ‘Look at what happened with her.’” In Itzik’s eyes, electing a woman would send an important message to the international community, and to Israelis.
“People see there are places in Israel where women are still sitting in the back of the bus, making less money and disproportionately unemployed,” she said. “I’ve broken glass ceilings before, as the first female Knesset speaker and trade minister. There is a feeling that it finally has to happen with the presidency.”
Itzik was the only one of six candidates who upon presenting the forms required to run to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, expressed a desire to become president not only of Israelis, but also of Diaspora Jews.
“It is important to me to represent them as well because Jewish people around the world are an integral part of the people here,” she said. “We cannot allow there to be a split with them. The Jewish people around the world must maintain their connection with Israel.
That means we must speak to the Jewish people themselves, not just their leaders.”
Itzik praised Taglit-Birthright and other programs, but said it pained her that there was still not enough being done to reach out to young Diaspora Jews.
“We have to be able to speak to the next generation that takes Israel for granted, and doesn’t know what a miracle the Jewish state is,” she said. “They don’t realize that the Zionist vision is not yet complete. We are both part of the ongoing chain of the Jewish people.”
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer : The culmination of 60 years of service
MK Ben-Eliezer, at 78, is the oldest member of the current Knesset. He made aliya from Iraq in 1950 and enlisted in the IDF four years later, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier- general before entering politics in 1984 in the Labor Party. Since then, he’s served as minister of construction and housing (twice), national infrastructure (twice), communications, defense, and industry, trade and labor.
Known as “Fuad,” his Arabic name, Ben- Eliezer is fluent in Arabic and is known for his strong connection to the Arab world and its leaders.
For Ben-Eliezer, the presidency would be the apex of 60 years of service to the State of Israel – 30 as a fighter and commander in the IDF, and 30 in politics.
“I want my many years of experience to be used to represent the unique mosaic that makes up the State of Israel’s population,” Ben-Eliezer said Thursday.
As president, the Labor MK would like to focus on social issues.
“I want to turn the President’s Office into a home for all parts of the nation, a place where every citizen of Israel can feel comfortable,” he stated. “I believe that as president of the State of Israel, I can create an honest, fruitful dialogue between the populations living here and unite the different groups: Jewish and Arab; secular, religious-Zionist and haredi; Right and Left; the Center and periphery.”
Ben-Eliezer is committed to not using the presidency to promote his political views, which are not in line with those of the current government – as he is in an opposition party.
At the same time, he pointed to his rich diplomatic experience and said he would be happy to use it if needed.
“I will make a clear rule for myself: Any meeting I have with leaders of countries or any other diplomatic event will be with the prime minister’s knowledge and coordination,” he stated.
Ben-Eliezer also said it is his priority to maintain a connection between Israel and world Jewry, and that he would take advantage of his platform as president to open the President’s Office to Jewish communities and organizations from around the world, as well as new immigrants.
“I’d like to say modestly that I am the oldest and most experienced candidate, and that the experience I accumulated in the last 60 years led to my knowing all of the populations I would serve as president of the State of Israel very well and deeply,” he concluded.
Sheetrit: My story shows Israel is the land of opportunity
Sheetrit, 65, is the longest-serving (non-consecutive) MK. He was first elected to the legislature in 1981, and has been a lawmaker ever since – except for four years in which he was treasurer of the Jewish Agency. Sheetrit served as minister of justice (twice), finance, transportation, education, construction and housing, and interior in the Likud and Kadima. Before that, he became mayor of Yavne at age 25.
Born in Errachidia, Morocco, Sheetrit made aliya with his 11-member family at age 10.
Sheetrit sees the presidency as a platform to deal with social issues, and feels his humble beginnings make him uniquely qualified for the task. “If there’s an existential threat to Israel, it’s not Arabs,” Sheetrit said. “We can defend ourselves well and we’ve proven it more than once. The danger is from these internal issues. We have the highest poverty rate among members states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and we can and should fix that.”
Though he is aware the president does not have any executive powers, the job can put a spotlight on issues he thinks should be top priorities: poverty, inequality, housing reform and helping Arabs, haredim, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups and other minorities.
Sheetrit quoted US President Barack Obama, who once said the “coolest thing” about being president is that everyone takes his calls.
“There’s no one I’ll call who won’t answer. I know all the government offices [from my ministerial experience], so it’ll be easier to make sure they notice these problems and take care of them. Not through authority [of the President’s Office], but because of my status and ability to talk to the prime minister,” Sheetrit explained.
Sheetrit has long been as a proponent of the Arab League Peace Initiative, and maintains that his Moroccan background can help Israel’s relations with Arab states, because he knows their language and culture.
“I think I can bring [the Arab world] closer.
We don’t have a conflict with most of them; the only reason we don’t have diplomatic relations is the Palestinians. What conflict do we really have with Morocco or the Gulf states or Malaysia? We can help them in areas like water and agriculture, like we do in Africa, where we don’t get anything in return. Arab states can give us something in return,” he said.
Still, Sheetrit said he is familiar with the president’s role and will only intervene in diplomacy at the prime minister’s request, and will instead dedicate most of his time and energy to aiding the poor.
The Hatnua MK may be one of the wealthiest politicians in Israel, but maintained this does not alienate him from the people he wants to help.
“If I’m on a list of rich people, that’s thanks to my wife [Ruth, a leading PR professional]. I admire her and I’m proud of her, but money doesn’t talk to me. If I wanted to make money, I would have left politics long ago,” he stated.
Sheetrit posited that his lifestyle didn’t change due to his wife’s success, except that they donate to charities in memory of their daughter, Miri, who died of cancer in 1993. “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he added.
Indeed, when Sheetrit came to Israel in 1957, his parents and eight siblings were brought to a ma’bara (transit camp for new immigrants); no one in his family knew how to read or write Hebrew.
“If someone in Morocco would have told me what would happen to me” – that he would serve as a senior minister and become a candidate for president – “I would have laughed,” Sheetrit said.
“Israel is the real America,” Sheetrit joked this week. “If I reached what I did, it proves that in Israel, everything is open. This is a land of opportunity. That is what I want to tell young people and all new immigrants.
“Everyone can reach as high as they aim for, if they put in the time and the effort. That is what I want to tell the young generation. It’s possible; I did it,” he said.
The outsiders: Dalia Dorner and Dan Shechtman
Nobel laureate Shechtman and former Supreme Court justice Dorner are the two candidates who entered the presidential race from outside politics and, as such, are seen as having less of a chance of winning the race.
MKs have paid tribute to the candidates’ successes and their ability to represent Israel to the world, yet few have said they would vote for either Dorner or Shechtman – not even those who signed the petitions allowing them to run. If they reach the second round of voting, it will be a shock to pundits and politicians alike.
Shechtman, 73, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011 for the discovery of quasicrystals and is a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
In an interview with the Post earlier this year, Shechtman said: “I can unite the people of Israel, so I won’t speak about controversial issues, which divide the people.”
Shechtman considers himself the best person to defend Israel against boycotts, as he gives 100 lectures a year around the world and stresses human rights for minorities in Israel, in addition to science. If elected president, he plans to put education at the fore and bring Israel to first place in international rankings in biotechnology and nutrition. He also hopes to advocate for more resources to be invested in schools at all levels, from early childhood to universities.
If Shechtman wins, he would be the first non-politician to win since biophysicist Ephraim Katzir in 1973.
Dorner, 80, is also a political outsider and began campaigning at the Knesset – where Speaker Edelstein gave her and Shechtman offices – only after submitting her signatures at the end of May.
She has been the head of the Israel Press Council since 2006, and lectures on human rights at Bar-Ilan University and on constitutional law at the Hebrew University. Born Dolly Greenberg in Istanbul, she moved with her family to Mandatory Palestine in 1944.
If elected president, Dorner plans to focus on social issues, pointing to her work as the head of committees on special-needs children, Holocaust survivors’ rights and the health system.
She also posits that having a former judge as president will bring Israel international respect, because the judiciary has a good reputation around the world.