President Reuven Rivlin just completed his first year in office as president of the State of Israel.
A year ago, when Rivlin took on the role, he brought great hope to a large part of the population that was sick and tired of having the office used as an enclave in government for promoting policies the larger Israeli public doesn’t agree with.
In fact, after years of losing every election in which he ran, Shimon Peres used his new position to promote his utopian view of peace through the two-state solution. The president became not the president of Israel, but of this two-state solution.
Rivlin, a strongly right-wing individual with an impeccable liberal record and a deep respect for human rights, represented that which most Israelis do agree.
The majority, as is seen in election after election, believe both in human rights and in Jews’ right to the Land of Israel. There is no contradiction. However, since being elected, Rivlin has changed his tone.
First, he started calling Israel a “sick society,” claiming it was divided and suffering from racism, citing the actions of radical racist minorities. This was clearly a false depiction of Israel – since after all, every society has problematic minorities that need to be dealt with, and singling out Israel for that is wrong.
Furthermore, this greatly hurt the Jewish state internationally and fueled the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, by portraying Israel negatively and giving those who seek to delegitimize it supportive quotes coming from its president! Rivlin also campaigned against the “Jewish nation-state” bill, claiming it was an affront to Israel’s democratic character. Not only was this an unprecedented intervention in internal Israeli politics by someone who holds a purely symbolic role, Rivlin’s words were also published in English as an op-ed piece in The Guardian, encouraging international pressure against the bill. This international pressure once again fueled the delegitimization movement by encouraging an international campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported the bill, characterizing him as anti-democratic.
Recently, Rivlin spoke at the Herzliya Conference, again arguing that Israel is a divided society – pointing to two large groups, the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox, as not being Zionist. This, according to Rivlin, is a danger to Israel’s future.
The truth is more complex. While it is true that the Arabs and haredim make up a large part of Israeli society, the evidence shows that both communities are slowly integrating into greater society.
Around 50 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel describe themselves as Zionist; more than 50% of Israeli Arabs claim they want to do national service.
As such, Israel is not a society that is becoming more stratified, but rather one that is becoming less divided.
Once again, Rivlin’s representation did a great disservice to Israel internationally, claiming large minorities are left out of the central public discourse.
The great hope of Israel’s national camp becomes its biggest nightmare
If Peres was the president of the twostate solution, Rivlin became the president giving weapons to the BDS movement.
Let’s be clear: Rivlin is a great Zionist, a lover of the Land of Israel, a great opponent of BDS. In no way am I saying that he is willfully fueling this hateful movement.
How is it, then, that this is what happens time and again? The reason is simple: Rivlin’s broad worldview, which includes a clear belief in Israel’s rights to all of the Land of Israel as well as a strong willingness to integrate all parts of Israeli society, including Arabs, into Israeli life, is a great Zionist vision shared by many Israelis.
However, as president, Rivlin showed a great lack of courage in advancing his full Zionist vision, and instead focused only on the parts of it he knows the world will like.
Instead of courageously promoting his entire worldview, he selectively decided which parts to emphasize in order to stay popular.
This leads to the warped vision that we now witness. Instead of speaking both of Israel’s rights to Judea and Samaria and the need to integrate Arabs into society, Rivlin obsessively spoke only about the need to integrate Arabs and stopped there. In order to justify this obsession, he started developing a false doctrine about Israel being a “sick society,” and opposed a bill defining Israel as the Jewish state. After all, there needs to be a reason for constantly speaking of racism even if the great majority of Israelis are already strongly opposed to it.
His lack of courage made him one of the greatest tools of his own enemies, the BDS Movement, rather than pushing his true ideology.
A lesson for the Right
What happened with Rivlin should be a lesson for right-wing Israelis. On many issues, Israel’s Right opposes the country’s left-wing hegemony.
Whether it is in academia, the courts or the media, the left wing still rules these strongholds even if it loses in election after election. This was also true in regard to the presidency.
When faced with such a situation, the Right has two options: Either pass indepth reforms that will change the very structure of these institutions, to allow for competing ideas to be fairly represented, or try to overtake these institutions and rule them the way the Left ruled them.
Essentially, the Right can either bring fairness, or do to the Left what the Left did to it.
This question was relevant in regard to the presidency when Peres held the post – and used it to push his political agenda.
Being completely symbolic, the presidency is not essential to Israeli life. The Right could have aimed to close down this useless institution; this also makes sense according to right-wing economic principles that oppose spending taxpayer shekels for no good reason. Instead, the Right tried to take the institution over.
The same question is critically important in relation to the courts. The Right has long complained of left-wing dominance in the High Court of Justice.
This is due to many systemic problems with the Israeli legal system; the process of nominating judges is unique, done behind closed doors, granting existing judges veto power over who the new judges will be. Israel’s courts are also incredibly activist, and intervene easily in the decisions of politicians.
The Right can decide to try to take over the nominating committee of judges, and push for right-wing activist judges instead of those who are left-leaning.
However, as Rivlin has taught us, what the Right should do is fight for a systemic change: To change the way judges are nominated in Israel, and to stop judicial activism of all types – whether left or right wing.
Rivlin’s example has illustrated that systemic problems should not be taken on by switching personnel who hold different ideologies, but rather by bringing systemic changes and deeper reforms.
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and the Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.