Politics: Progressing presidential priorities?

How the Peres-Rivlin shift marks a societal change from a focus on war and peace to internal affairs.

Rivlin sworn in as president, July 23. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rivlin sworn in as president, July 23.
A year and a half ago, Israel went to an election that was about everything but the traditional political issues of war and peace.
Two months later, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu formed a coalition that was not cohesive on the peace process but united on civil and socioeconomic issues.
The government started dealing with internal issues like drafting yeshiva students, electoral reforms and affordable housing.
Although a nine-month diplomatic process with the Palestinians did take place, skepticism and the discrete nature of the talks kept the spotlight on internal issues inside Israeli society.
Another election continued the same trend last month when former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin defeated four other candidates for president.
All of them vowed to emphasize internal societal issues, not war and peace.
In his victory speech, Rivlin signaled that he would change the focus at the President’s Residence from the diplomatic issues that outgoing President Shimon Peres symbolized to the rifts inside Israel.
He vowed to become the president of all Israelis: “Jews, Arabs, Druse, rich, poor, those who are more observant and those who are less.”
But two days later, Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped and subsequently found dead, and the focus of the country changed. Since then, the front pages have been dominated by the search for the boys, their funeral, intensified rocket attacks and the IDF operation against Hamas and its terrorist tunnels.
Key legislation on matters of religion and state at the Knesset has been postponed. Lobbies on socioeconomic issues have been silenced. Public relations firms promoting stories on anything but the IDF operation know better than to push them right now.
Under that cloud, Rivlin was sworn in as president Thursday at a low-key ceremony at the Knesset. The traditional cocktail party was canceled, news of the inauguration was downplayed and Peres, who has been in elective office for all but a few months since he was first elected to the Knesset in 1959, left the President’s Residence with a strangely un-Peres-like lack of fanfare.
It is now only a distant memory that Netanyahu tried everything possible to postpone the presidential election. In hindsight, does the return of the national agenda to security and talks with the likes of US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon mean that Israel still requires a Peres-like president? Has Rivlin and his internal agenda come on the horizon too soon? That depends on how you look at what has happened over the past month.
Hamas would say that it has frightened Israelis with its rockets and tunnels, and by briefly succeeding in preventing flights into Israel. The tunnels in particular provided a new strategic threat for Israelis to worry about.
But the past month’s events have arguably revealed the strength of Israeli society and its patriotism. Life has gone on despite some 2,000 rockets and mortar shells, which have so far claimed three civilian lives.
Hamas unified Israel by attacking not the West Bank, whose fate divides Israelis, but Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Airport and the Israeli consensus. By doing so, Hamas built up the stamina of an Israeli population that had been more impatient in previous standoffs in Gaza.
The unity is obviously temporary.
As soon as a cease-fire is reached, Israelis will go back to bickering again.
But then, assuming the ceasefire is somewhat sustainable, the national agenda will return once more to other issues.
The Knesset won’t be around – it starts yet another lengthy vacation on Wednesday.
But Rivlin will. He will be there, under the radar, at the President’s Residence.
He will spend his first days in office attending funerals and paying condolence calls. But then the operation will end, and Rivlin will get into high gear.
Rivlin’s associates said that due to the security situation, he has not yet drawn up a plan for his first 100 days, but that it would be forthcoming. He has not even decided whether to move in to President’s Residence or commute from his Jerusalem home.
They said the main issues he would focus on would be promoting democracy, advocating for the periphery, advancing women’s issues and working against racism. He has vowed to use his position as a listening post for people with varied problems and gripes.
He is expected to reach out to Israeli-Arab communities and try to make them feel a part of Israeli society. As Knesset speaker, he made a point of going to the Lower Galilee city of Umm el-Fahm on his first site tour in office, a decision that angered Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
If there will be an agreement reached with the Palestinians during his seven-year term, he will speak to evacuees and console them as he did as Knesset Speaker during the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
However, broader diplomatic issues will be left to the government and to Peres, who is not president any more but is expected to continue to use his international gravitas to further promote the issues he has championed.
“He has no plans to fill Peres’s shoes,” Rivlin’s spokeswoman Emilie Moatti said. “His focus will be internal, not on war and peace and who is wrong and right. He will strive to heal the rifts in society and keep the country united when the security situation is over.”