Mr. President

Reuven Rivlin is expected to bring very different qualities to his post than his predecessor.

Reuven Rivlin
With the changing of the guard at the President’s Residence, the switch from exiting President Shimon Peres to the newly elected Reuven Rivlin will be a dramatic one.
If Peres is a man of the world, a frequent guest at the tables of kings and presidents across the globe, Rivlin is more of a “common man,” a regular at local Jerusalem gatherings or at the stadium watching a soccer match. Not that Rivlin is unlikely to receive invitations to represent Israel at official ceremonies abroad – nor that he is likely to refuse – but the new president’s tenure will take a very different tone than Peres’s.
Peres has powerful political instincts. Rivlin is far from a stranger to politics – after all, he has been an MK for many years, and political moves, both public and behind the scenes, played a major role in his election to the presidency – but that is where the comparison ends. Peres, a former prime minister and defense minister, seems never to have really quit the job, and in his own way he has continued to work hard from the President’s Residence to promote his dream of bringing peace to the Middle East. Rivlin’s dreams, by contrast, seem to be more connected to the simple daily reality on the ground. He is known to be attentive to the people’s feelings, and on many occasions during his campaign he emphasized that he felt it was more urgent to heal the profound wound among the country’s opposing parties than to convey messages to the world.
But who is Reuven Rivlin? Born in Jerusalem in 1939, he studied law at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and has four children with his wife, Nechama. He has been a vegetarian since the late 1960s and is a well-known supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club. He was first elected to the 12th Knesset in 1988, serving as Likud chairman from then until 1992, when he lost his seat in the elections.
He returned to the Knesset following the 1996 race, and he served as communications minister from 2001 until 2003, when he became Knesset Speaker.
During his term as Speaker, he came in for criticism for breaking the post’s traditional political neutrality: Regarding the 2005 disengagement, he was one of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s harshest critics.
Yet at the same time, he conducted the Knesset without regard for his own party’s benefit, remarking that as Speaker of the parliament, he was above such considerations.
He ran in the 2007 presidential elections as the Likud candidate, but decided to withdraw when it became clear that Kadima MK Peres had enough support to win. In this year’s presidential vote, Rivlin defeated Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit in the second round by 90 votes out of 120.
Rivlin is known for his straightforward, nondiplomatic declarations – such as during pope Benedict XVI’s visit, when he mentioned Benedict’s previous service in the Nazi German military and criticized his address at Yad Vashem.
The new president is also known for his attitude toward the country’s Arab minority. Although considered hawkish when it comes to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, he is a supporter of minority rights, particularly those of Israeli Arabs. His first official visit as Knesset speaker was to the Israeli- Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, and he nominated Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) as his deputy Speaker to demonstrate the importance of democratic principles. In June 2010, Rivlin ignored the advice of a committee that recommended removing Balad MK Haneen Zoabi from office for having participated in the Gaza flotilla earlier that year. Many on the Right criticized Rivlin’s actions in the Zoabi case, but he received praise from other quarters for defending democracy.
He is also known to be strongly opposed to a two-state solution and has voiced support for a one-state solution, arguing in 2010 that he “would rather accept Palestinians as Israeli citizens than divide Israel and the West Bank in a future two-state peace solution.”
Last but not least, he has campaigned actively for the recognition of the Armenian genocide, asserting in 2012 that “it is our moral duty to remember the tragedy of the Armenian people, who lost more than a million of its sons during the First World War, and we must not make this a political issue.”
For several reasons, but primarily because it doesn’t suit his personality, Rivlin is not expected to mingle in foreign affairs or to be involved in local or international politics. But he does plan to invest a lot of time and effort in establishing personal and direct relations with Israelis all around the country – visiting, listening to them, trying to find solutions to their difficulties, offering a shoulder for support.
In other words, says a source who has known him for years, “we are going to see a very human touch, [a] down-to-earth presidency – probably fewer trips to the four corners of the world, and more visits around here.”
In addition, continues the source, “the president and his wife will of course have to move to the official [presidential] residence, but they will probably spend as much time as possible in their own apartment in Jerusalem. They will try honestly to change their way of life as little as possible, especially Mrs. Rivlin.”
Asked if this is a good attitude for a newly elected president, the source says that “for Israeli citizens, this is certainly good news, but I am not sure it will please all the politicians around [him]. This attitude of Rivlin’s will win him a lot of supporters; many of them will be, in due time, the citizens called to vote. It’s not certain that the popularity the new president will enjoy will please everyone here.”
Rivlin has only just entered his new position – the inauguration ceremony, which was deliberately low key due to the war in Gaza, took place yesterday – but there are already some observers wondering if he will consider a comeback to political life at the end of his term, crowned with a probably successful tenure and lots of public sympathy.
Still, long before that happens, the first task awaiting him as president is a delicate one: One of the president’s duties is to grant amnesty for prisoners, and there are indications that one of the first such requests on his desk will be that of former president Moshe Katsav. Some may expect Rivlin to show some political solidarity with his fellow Likud member.
“But these people,” says the source, “apparently don’t know Rivlin well enough. Rivlin is a man of law; he is an attorney. He is profoundly dedicated to democracy and its values, well above internal considerations of a political party or affiliation – an attitude he has widely shown in his role as Speaker of the Knesset.”