Speech-making by dignitaries is gradually being replaced by armchair chats between leading personalities and well-known journalists.
One of the most frequent practitioners of this trend is President Reuven Rivlin, who has frequently engaged with representatives of several publications, including The Jerusalem Post.
On Monday, his interlocutor was Channel 2 political commentator Amit Segal, who is known for his biting comments and incisive analysis. Rivlin made some brief introductory remarks before the two men sat together at the opening session of the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference, sponsored by the Besheva group of weekly religious Zionist newspapers.
Rivlin recalled that when he was a law student, he had to study British law and remembered a section on ordeal by fire. Familiar with Segal’s no-holds-barred style of journalism, Rivlin then said he was about to experience his own ordeal by fire.
Segal was actually soft-spoken and respectful, but at the same time posed questions that were sharp and penetrating.
Segal listed a string of West Bank and Golan Heights settlements that Rivlin had visited. Noting that Rivlin was the first president of Israel to go to these places, he asked: “So why does everyone think you’re a Leftist?”
“I was always on the right side,” replied Rivlin. “Not Right against Left, but right against wrong.” For as long as he could remember, Rivlin said, he had believed that there was no contradiction between a Jewish and a democratic state. When he tells this to world leaders, they think he’s talking about utopia, he commented.
An ardent, lifelong disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Rivlin pointed out that the revisionist leader had strongly advocated that Jews and Arabs should live together in harmony. “This is something that many of his other followers have forgotten,” said Rivlin.
PURSUING A similar point, Segal recalled that Rivlin had banned singer Amir Benayoun from performing at the President’s Residence, and yet displayed a painting by ultra-left-wing secular artist Yair Garbuz, who said at a peace rally in 2015 that Israel had been taken over by a handful of amulet-kissing extremists.
Segal wanted to know why Garbuz was acceptable but Benayoun was unacceptable.
Rivlin explained that Benayoun had written an anti-Arab song before he was disinvited. Even though he considers Benayoun a fine singer, he said, it went against the grain to have someone who was attacking a segment of the population sing at the President’s Residence, which stands for national unity.
AS FOR Garbuz, Rivlin said that the painting was acquired simply because it’s a beautiful painting, before Garbuz made his derogatory comment, and it’s policy at the President’s Residence to display works by Israeli artists. Turning to the large audience, Rivlin said: “You didn’t know we had a Yair Garbuz painting at the President’s Residence. Now you do.” In defense of Garbuz, he added, “There are a lot of different interpretations in relation to what Garbuz said.”
Reminding Rivlin that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir used to say that if he reads something good about himself in Haaretz
, he begins to worry, Rivlin confessed that he has a few qualms when the newspaper writes positive things about him. In the days when it was the best paper, Rivlin said, he read it because it was well written and “to know what I oppose.”
Rivlin regretted that the Israeli public is becoming more intolerant of the each other, and refuses to admit that someone else’s opinion may be correct. One shouldn’t point a finger at the other, he said, because we are all cut from the same cloth.
Rivlin said he has never regarded people who disagree with him as opponents. In fact, he frequently remarks to visiting heads of state that friends can agree to disagree.
When Rivlin was elected to the presidency, said Segal, the public was certain that a super right-wing president was coming into office and would uphold the majority views.
Rivlin countered by saying he was not elected by the public, he was elected by the Knesset – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, Left and Right.
Getting back to the issue of whether he has turned Left politically, Rivlin said, “Whatever I’m against today, I was against in all my previous positions.” He suggested it was not he who had changed, but change has occurred among those who think he has changed.
THE QUESTION that everyone was waiting for – about Rivlin’s soured relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – did eventually come. “He’s prime minister, I’m president,” said Rivlin. “We each have our respective roles. We both come from families that prayed for the day when there would be a president and prime minister of a State of Israel and that the Jewish people would be free in their own land.” He made it clear that neither he nor Netanyahu allow personal feelings to get in the way of their professional relationship.”
Segal was persistent, and wanted to know whether the president and prime minister had met recently. “I’ve met with a few friends,” said Rivlin. “But did you meet with Netanyahu?” asked Segal. “I told you, I met with friends, and he’s not a friend,” replied Rivlin.
At the same time, he underscored that he always consults with Netanyahu before traveling abroad, so that he can present official Israeli policy to his hosts.
When Segal asked whether Rivlin thought that Netanyahu was fit to be prime minister, given the swirling suspicions of corruption around him, Rivlin opted not to voice his opinion, but told Segal that he could ask him again in three-and-a-half years, after he completes his term.
Asked about annexation of Judea and Samaria, Rivlin said that he had grown up with the idea that all of biblical Israel belongs to the Jewish people, but the creation of the Kingdom of Jordan meant that not all of ancient Israel would be part of the modern state. On the other hand, Rivlin said he was in favor of settlement expansion, and that every effort should be made to increase such construction.
Although prepared to accept a two-state solution to what he calls the Israel-Palestinian tragedy, Rivlin wants all residents of the country to become citizens with full equal rights, and he wants the Jewish citizens of Israel to be ever mindful and observant of the biblical injunction to treat the stranger within your gates with respect.
Rivlin also noted that it was the third anniversary according to the Hebrew calendar of the passing of pensioners affairs minister Uri Orbach, who prior to entering politics had been a talented journalist and author. Rivlin and Netanyahu both visited Orbach in the hospital as he lay dying. Rivlin said that Orbach had left an important legacy and a strong impression both on journalism and on the Knesset, and he was certain that future researchers in both areas would continue to mention Orbach’s name.