Middle Israel: All the president meant

Reuven Rivlin emerges from the Right’s attacks on him as an angry society’s punching bag and therapist.

By
December 20, 2015 08:24
Obama and Rivlin

President Reuven Rivlin meets with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)

 
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Moses’s command “You shall not revile God nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people” was lost on Channel 20’s journalists this week as they scolded President Reuven Rivlin for “having lost his shame” and accused the veteran Greater Israelite for “caring about representing himself rather than the people of Israel.”

Challenging the personality, ideology and strategy that his presidency combines, the incident and the controversial trip to the US that sparked it consolidate Rivlin’s position as an angry society’s punching bag and therapist.

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Some of Israel’s presidents were introverts, like Ephraim Katzir, a scientist who felt best among his lab’s test tubes. Others were snobs, like Chaim Weizmann, who seldom hobnobbed with the masses. And some were outgoing, like the late Yitzhak Navon, who liked to chat with ordinary folk over a plate of hummus in downtown Jerusalem.

No president, however, was as truly natural, unassuming and happy with ordinary people of whatever background as Rivlin is.

Most people, even politicians, would find his job’s routine visits to schools, kindergartens, municipalities and community centers boring, and the endless handshakes and small talk they require exhausting. The affable, 76-year-old Rivlin seems to enjoy their every minute.

A former chairman of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club and son of a Hebrew University Islamic studies professor, Rivlin is comfortable with everyone: scholars and simpletons, rich and poor, Arabs and Jews, hassidic rabbis and secularist crusaders, Christian bishops and Muslim imams.

Yet not everyone is comfortable with him.



Having just attended the Haaretz Peace Conference in New York despite the presence of Breaking the Silence, a group that trumpets abroad what it presents as IDF human rights violations, Rivlin is attacked by people who, until his presidency, were his political flesh and blood.

Rivlin, charged conservative website Mida, lacks intellectual gravitas, courage, charisma and an impressive background in spheres such as the military, business or academia, yet he set out “to climb at any price.”

It was in that spirit also that Channel 20, a local version of Fox News, chaired by former Israel Broadcast Authority director- general Moti Sklar, waged its attack.

Sklar, a resident of West Bank community Ofra, was not involved in the Facebook posting and rushed to control its damage as soon as he learned of it.

“We went too far,” he told Army Radio the following day. “The last thing I can say about the president is that he is not a patriot and that he is not in favor of the soldiers of the IDF,” he said.

Still, reflecting a traumatized Right’s fears of betrayal, the outbursts underscore a political acrobat’s growing irritation of his core constituency, while also bringing to mind his bad blood with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

DURING 37 years as a party activist, city councilman, lawmaker, minister and twotime Knesset speaker, Rivlin was never an ideological opportunist. A die-hard believer in Greater Israel, he followed Ariel Sharon when he served that idea, and parted ways with him when he conceived the disengagement from Gaza.

There is no indication that Rivlin’s espousal of the Greater Israel ideal has changed by an iota. He is, however, a liberal nationalist, a disciple of the Revisionist Zionism that was formulated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and upheld by Menachem Begin.

That is why, over the years, Rivlin has consistently fought for the rights of the Arab population, whose dignity he now feels an even greater need to defend.

As Knesset speaker in 2010, Rivlin opposed initiatives to expel MK Haneen Zoabi from the legislature for having joined the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza.

As president, he disinvited from an event in his residency singer Amir Benayoun because a song of his, “Ahmed Loves Israel,” arguably stereotyped Arabs as murderers.

Rivlin then angered Netanyahu when he opposed, shortly after his assumption of the presidency in June 2014, the bill that would have declared Israel the nationstate of the Jewish people.

“Doesn’t this bill’s very promotion doubt the Zionist enterprise’s success?” asked the president rhetorically, before asserting that, if made law, the declaration would “not enhance Israel’s Jewish character.”

In July, following the torching of the Dawabshe family’s house in the West Bank village of Duma, which killed a baby and his parents, Rivlin lamented: “Sons of my people chose terrorism’s path and lost their human image.” And referring to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, during the slain prime minister’s 20th memorial, Rivlin vowed: “As long as I am president of the State of Israel, the murderer will not go free. My right arm shall wither should I ever sign a pardon for this damned man.”

Rivlin’s attentiveness even to his ideological adversaries has positioned him as the one address where Israelis of all walks can pour out their hearts.

Then again, the tone, wording and frequency of his humanistic statements in Arab contexts have made some in the Right mark Rivlin as a panderer to the Left, a potential turncoat like Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Ezer Weizman, and a closet lefty whose arrival at a New York conference co-sponsored by the left-leaning New Israel Fund no longer came as a surprise.

Rivlin’s warm, high-profile welcome with his wife, Nechama, in the White House by Barack and Michelle Obama was interpreted by Rivlin’s critics as designed to slight Netanyahu; the president who haunts Netanyahu the statesman was toasting the president who annoys Netanyahu the politician.

Obama realized full well that Netanyahu – for reasons he never explained – first unseated Rivlin as Knesset speaker and then fought tooth and nail to prevent his election as president.

Just where this hostility originates is unclear – some claim Rivlin once insulted Sara Netanyahu – yet its intensity in the prime minister’s circle is such that it is apparently what inspired his designated information officer Ran Baratz to deride Rivlin as “a marginal figure” who could shake passengers’ hands during a recent flight because “there is no fear for his life.”

Finally, as if to seal drama with farce, even ultra-Orthodox organ Yated Ne’eman joined the attacks on Rivlin, after having learned that the Hanukka candlelighting ceremony he joined in the White House was led by a rabbi who is both Reform and a woman.

Yet from a purely institutional viewpoint, all this means is that Rivlin is doing his job.

THE ISRAELI PRESIDENCY is designed to wield no authority except the granting of pardons and clemencies. In a society cobbled together from myriad tribes, ethnicities, ideologies and faiths, the president is supposed to symbolize the nation’s unity and embody its cement.

Political authority might hamper this role. Moral authority would enhance it.

Previous presidents served this aim in different ways.

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi hosted his guests in a shack and went by foot to work on his books in the Hebrew University’s library, thus exuding a genuine image of modesty and serving a socialist elite’s pretension to remain close to the people.

Yitzhak Navon spent three days and nights in a Tel Aviv slum at a time when tensions between struggling non-Ashkenazi proletarians and a prosperous Ashkenazi elite boiled over. Rivlin-the-Likudnik’s gestures to his political alma mater’s opponents from the Left are an inversion of Navon-the-Laborite’s gestures to his own political origins’ opponents from the right.

Rivlin would not be doing his job had he not positioned himself between and above Right and Left. Then again, the fact that he has become so agreeable to the Left that Labor leader Isaac Herzog demanded this week in the Knesset that Netanyahu declare from the podium that Rivlin is his, the prime minister’s, president might mean Rivlin is doing his job too well.

The repeated attacks on Rivlin from various quarters of the Right, including Netanyahu’s immediate vicinity, create the impression that some there perceive him as a threat, whether to Netanyahu’s agenda, career – or both.

Such fears are far-fetched.

On the personal plane, by the time his seven-year term ends, Rivlin will be 83, and very unlikely to seek a post-presidential political chapter, despite his popularity.

On the ideological plain, Rivlin already demonstrated his refusal to compromise his ideas for opportunity, when he opposed disengagement even though he was Sharon’s confidante and, as such, could have expected a senior appointment had he backed his boss’s scheme.

If anything, judging by both men’s biographies, Netanyahu is the one more likely to cede land in the framework of a future deal with the Palestinians. Remote though such a scenario may seem right now, should it materialize, Rivlin would suddenly seem to Netanyahu as the asset that most other Israelis see in him already now.

www.MiddleIsrael.net

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