A look at Israel’s 10th president: Reuven Rivlin

As Knesset speaker, Rivlin was staunchly opposed to any form of racial discrimination, and is even more so as president.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) and IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin (L) and IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
People in positions of power or prominence, or both, are inevitably compared with their predecessors. The most common feature that President Reuven Rivlin shares with the majority of his nine predecessors is a political background and membership in the Jewish faith.
There is no law that states the president of Israel must be Jewish, and should preferably be a politician.
However, in the Jewish state or the State of the Jews, it’s going to be a long time before any non- Jew is even considered for the presidency – let alone elected.
Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, could obviously not have been an MK before taking office, but given his role in the Zionist movement and establishment of the state, he most certainly was a political figure. The country’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, served in the first and second Knesset. His successor, Zalman Shazar, was a government minister as well as an MK.
Israel’s fourth president, Ephraim Katzir, though primarily known as a scientist, was not an MK but was a Labor Party activist. Its fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, was an MK who returned to politics after completing his term as president; he was reelected to the Knesset and appointed education and culture minister.
Chaim Herzog, the sixth president, had previously pursued successful careers in military intelligence, law and diplomacy before throwing his hat into the political ring and being elected to the Knesset.
Ezer Weizman, who succeeded him, had also been a military hero as well as head of the air force and deputy chief of staff. He too was an MK and had been a minister several times over, including defense minister.
Moshe Katzav, the eighth president – and so far the only one to serve a jail term, though not the only one ousted from office – was a politician for most of his life and held various ministerial portfolios prior to his election to the presidency.
And of course, there was Rivlin’s immediate predecessor and nemesis, Shimon Peres – who has had the longest political career in Israel’s history. Without getting too much into Peres’s 48-year history in the Knesset, it is important to note he was minister in 12 cabinets, with positions including prime minister, foreign affairs minister and defense minister.
IT’S DIFFICULT to know whether to compare Rivlin with the biblical Job or with Scottish warrior king Robert the Bruce; the latter, in a fabled story of trial and error, coined the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”
The same could be said for Rivlin, who just over seven years ago competed with Peres for the presidency.
In his second try at the presidency, he succeeded over pretty disparaging odds. Despite being from the same political party, Rivlin did so without support from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the majority of his campaign.
Not only that – he had to contend with more rivals than did any of his predecessors. On the day of the second round of the elections, he came precariously close to losing to Meir Sheetrit.
It was not the first time Rivlin had faced opposition in his own political ranks. He had been elected to the Jerusalem City Council in 1978 and later served on the city council as head of the Herut faction (the forerunner of the Likud).
But in 1989, when he wanted to run as the Herut candidate for mayor, he was defeated by Shmuel Pressburger. In the 1993 municipal elections, Rivlin had hoped to be the Likud candidate for mayor, but was again defeated in his mayoral ambitions – this time by Ehud Olmert, who succeeded in defeating longtime mayoral incumbent Teddy Kollek, thereby becoming the first right-wing mayor of Jerusalem.
It was a humiliating period for Rivlin, the multi-generational Jerusalemite so closely identified with Israel’s capital, beaten by a first-generation Israeli born in Binyamina.
Similarly, with his first attempt to win a Knesset seat in 1984, he was No. 51 on the Likud Knesset list and had to wait for the next election in 1988 to finally become a lawmaker. Even then, his joy was relatively short-lived. In the next Knesset election, he was No. 33 on the list but just missed out because the Likud won 32 seats.
His political fortunes subsequently improved, despite being at odds with his colleagues on various issues. Rivlin made it to the 10th spot on the Likud list in the 1999 Knesset elections. In 2001, when the Likud headed by Ariel Sharon won the elections, Rivlin received his first and only ministerial post as communications minister.
In 2003, when Sharon entered his second term as prime minister, Rivlin’s political fortunes soared when 104 out of 120 MKs voted for him to become speaker. He served two terms, and was generally acknowledged as having done a good job – but politics being what they are, he lost out to Yuli Edelstein the third time around.
His defeat was largely attributed to one of many falling-outs with Netanyahu – in this case, a perceived insult to the prime minister’s wife, Sara.
During the period leading up to the recent presidential elections, Netanyahu tried to persuade former foreign minister David Levy to run, and also approached world-renowned author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Levy declined, and Wiesel is not an Israeli citizen.
Netanyahu was left with no option but to reluctantly back Rivlin, who finally achieved his ambition.
BUT WITH the curse of Job, his inauguration ceremony was toned down due to Operation Protective Edge, and his first month in office was spent visiting bereaved families of fallen soldiers and hospitalized injured soldiers. A most difficult task was speaking at the funeral of four-year-old Daniel Tragerman, one of the civilian victims of the conflict.
Rivlin, who was an intelligence officer in the IDF, has also been visiting army and air force bases to update himself on current operations, and has spent a great deal of time with children: those from the South; in Beit Shemesh on the eve of the new school year; those suffering from cancer at the Zichron Menachem Day Center in Jerusalem; with Jews and Arabs playing football together in Shefayim; and with those from Dimona and Kibbutz Sa’ad on their first day of school.
Together with former Knesset colleague MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al), he went to Taibe to offer condolences to the family of murdered school principal Yusef Haj Yihye, and he’s also managed to fit in a couple of diplomatic meetings and sitdowns with representatives of international Jewish organizations. He even attended a Torah dedication ceremony, and for the first time received the credentials of new ambassadors.
Rivlin, in general, is keen to bring more children to the presidential compound, and together with his wife, Nechama, has established an educational garden on the grounds so children can come learn about the importance of plants and flowers, and adopt plots to call their own.
WITH THE declaration of the cease-fire on August 26, Rivlin was finally able to focus on regular presidential duties – which inevitably include receiving delegations from Diaspora Jewish organizations and institutions.
Before his election as president, Rivlin was critical of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and there was concern, particularly among Conservative and Reform Jews, that this attitude might prevail.
But, he told a visiting North American delegation from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, “We cannot agree on everything, but we are brothers and we are one big family.”
He has emphasized the family concept to other visiting delegations, and it has already become his mantra, as has the tradition of welcoming people to Jerusalem rather than welcoming them to Israel.
Another mantra that he has repeated several times with regard to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians is: “We are not doomed to live together. We are destined to live together.”
As Knesset speaker, Rivlin was staunchly opposed to any form of racial discrimination, and is even more so as president. In his meetings with children, he has emphasized the importance of acceptance of the other and the evils of baseless hatred.
In all likelihood, the keynote of his presidency will be his ongoing campaign for respect and equal rights for Israel’s minorities; this was the signature note of his inauguration address. It is a principle he learned in his father’s house, and is part of his integral belief as Israel’s No. 1 citizen.
Rivlin also likes to tell the story of how his family came from Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1809 – a story that is particularly suitable for this time of the year, in that the Hebrew calendar year in 1809 was Taf Kuf Ayin, which spells the word “teka” (the order given for the sounding of the shofar).
Rivlin, who is descended from the Vilna Gaon, says his family and other disciples were told by the Vilna Gaon that the Messiah was coming that year to Jerusalem “and it was impossible that the Rivlins should not be there to greet him.” Unfortunately, he didn’t come, the president concedes, but many of the Rivlins are still in Jerusalem, though some moved on to the US and elsewhere.
RIVLIN HAS also been vocal with regard to the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.
At a recent Druse sports event honoring the memories of Druse IDF soldiers who fell in the line of duty, Rivlin warned that terrorist organizations must be stopped before it is too late. Israel has a responsibility in this regard, he said, decrying the brutality of radical fundamentalists who claim to be acting in the name of God, and take the Islamic faith and the name of God in vain.
Rivlin warned that Israel is sitting on a volcano that is on the verge of erupting – because the political elite remains largely silent in the face of racist phenomena, and tends to use democratic principles as a tool for incitement.
He has publicly observed that everyone talks about these problems, but very few take responsibility for them. He has deplored the increase in incitement and violent incidents throughout the country, and has regretfully noted that graffiti scrawled on walls calling for death to the Arabs was not something born overnight, but uttered daily in a loud, clear voice; he is adamant this must be stopped.
Indeed, the battle for Israel should not only be fought on its security front lines, he said at the recent opening of the legal year, but also on the home front, to prevent further internecine strife.