Politics: Can Rivlin unite from the Right?

Against all odds, the Likud MK is still considered the front-runner to defeat Peres, thanks to the support of MKs from across the political spectrum.

rivlin cool 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rivlin cool 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Likud MK Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin opposed the Gaza Strip withdrawal; he is against further territorial concessions to the Palestinians; and he remains loyal to the ideology of Greater Israel on which he was weaned. His Knesset faction numbers only 12 MKs, not nearly large enough of a base from which to mount a credible campaign for the presidency, which he officially launched this week, ahead of an election in the Knesset to replace Moshe Katsav that will be held no later than July. And yet, against all odds, Rivlin is still considered the front-runner to defeat Vice Premier Shimon Peres, thanks to the support of MKs from across the political spectrum, including Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties. MKs who back Rivlin said he earned their support due to his objective handling of the Knesset when he was its speaker, his good-natured personality and his statesmanlike image that they said was ideal to repair a presidency tarnished by the charges of sexual improprieties against Katsav. "Most of the MKs who support me gave me their endorsement in spite of my ideas and not because of them," Rivlin said recently. "Everyone who saw me in action as Knesset speaker noticed that in spite of my views, I fought to allow everyone to express his ideas. Even the Arab MKs know that I will fight for Israel to remain a democratic state just as much as I would fight to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state." An Arab MK who supports Rivlin - but declined to be identified out of fear of hurting him - said the political views of the candidates were irrelevant, because the president must act apolitically and accept the government's democratic decisions. "The views of any potential president wouldn't be what we want anyway," the Arab MK said. "So you have to judge the candidates by their civil agenda and their commitment to real equality and democracy. Rivlin ran the Knesset in an exceptionally fair way, and he did not allow Arab MKs' rights to be violated, despite his deep differences of opinion with us." Rivlin has said that the president must be a symbol and therefore cannot interfere with the government, which Katsav's predecessor, Ezer Weizman, was frequently accused of doing. He said he would not criticize the government, even if it made decisions he strongly opposed, such as dividing Jerusalem, the city the Rivlin family has called home for seven generations, since it came from Lithuania among the followers of the Vilna Gaon, who Rivlin is proud to say was a relative. "The president must restrain himself from expressing opinions that could raise arguments," he said. "A president has to know that once he is elected, it means no more politics. The role of the president is to build bridges, and I would do it by bringing both sides of a dispute to dialogue in Beit Hanassi and by acting as a Wailing Wall for everyone's concerns." One such dispute Rivlin believes he could have solved had he already been president involves exactly what he said - "building bridges" and the "Wailing Wall." According to Rivlin, the dispute over the bridge from the Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount that caused violence this week could have been avoided with the proper dialogue the president is supposed to initiate. "I would invite people from both sides to Beit Hanassi to get them to explain to the other side why they are not against them, and I would find a way to get both sides to understand that they have a mutual interest in there being a bridge from the Wailing Wall to the holy mountain," Rivlin said. RIVLIN'S ABILITY to represent all Israelis despite his views is exactly what his associates said was lacking in his competition, Peres and Labor MK Colette Avital, who they said could have a difficult time relating to settlers. A Rivlin associate said of Avital that he hoped the Knesset would elect a woman president after him, but that "if people think she is a better candidate, not just because she is a woman, they should vote for her." In a letter to MKs announcing his candidacy, Rivlin said it was important that the president be able to relate to evacuees from Gush Katif and Sderot residents who have been under fire from Kassam rockets. Peres downplayed the threat a year ago when he denounced Sderot residents for whining over what he called "Kassam-shmassams." Rivlin also blasted Peres in the letter for Kadima's initiative to end secret-ballot voting for president, which is intended to help Peres defeat him. "There is no need to mince words on the improper tricks that are intended to diminish the Knesset's authority to select the next president," Rivlin wrote. "The opposition to the move from across political camps and the sharp condemnation have made clear that the MKs will not agree to change the selection process for the president into a showcase of hollow conditional democracy." Rivlin's associates said the reason a secret ballot was enacted was because it was important that the president not know who voted against him, and they didn't want MKs forced to vote against their conscience by their factions. They pointed out that former presidents Chaim Herzog, Yitzhak Navon, Weizman and Katsav were all elected despite the opposition of the prime minister and the coalition. When Katsav defeated Peres in 2000, officials close to Peres questioned whether Ehud Barak supported him in the secret-ballot vote, and confidants of, Ariel Sharon, the opposition leader at the time, later revealed that he had voted for his friend Peres. Rivlin revealed recently that Sharon had told him when Kadima was formed that if he joined the party, he would have been its presidential candidate. Another criticism Rivlin had of Peres in the letter was that the to fix the institution, the presidency needed someone like himself who saw the office as the pinnacle of his career, and not someone who was only seeking the post "as a consolation prize" because he had failed to get elected prime minister. Rivlin hopes to avenge the loss of his father, Prof. Yoel Rivlin, who ran for president against Itzhak Ben-Zvi in 1957 under the Herut banner and died in 1972. On a visit to Washington, the elder Rivlin commiserated with Richard Nixon after he lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy. Nixon told him that they both lost the presidency, but only Rivlin had the honor of translating the Koran from Arabic to Hebrew. The younger Rivlin build up his credentials for the presidency when he visited more than 40 parliaments around the world and regularly briefed ambassadors as Knesset speaker. But Rivlin said recently that among the responsibilities of the president, representing Israel abroad was less important to him than helping tackle the rifts inside the country - between rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim and the religious and non-religious. Unlike Katsav, who prayed daily in a synagogue built for him on the premises of Beit Hanassi, Rivlin usually comes only on holidays to the synagogue on Rehov Tomer in his Yefei Nof neighborhood. But Rivlin is a skilled Torah reader who regularly chants the Torah portion for the congregation. That may not be enough to win him the support of Shas. A Shas official said the party was leaning toward supporting Peres, because "Rivlin can run next time in seven years," but Peres would be 91 by then. But Rivlin has made up for Shas's apparent lack of support by winning the backing of such unexpected advocates as coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki of Kadima and MK Shelly Yacimovich, the most dovish MK in Labor. Rivlin denied reports that he asked Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu not to refer to him as the Likud's presidential candidate out of fear the party would be a burden that would detract support. "I can't deny that I am from the Likud," Rivlin said recently, "but I consider myself the candidate of many MKs. I hope more than 61 of them."