Israel, thankfully, is not in the grips of a civil war, and President Reuven Rivlin – while popular – is no Abraham Lincoln.
Yet Rivlin decided to end his short speech Tuesday tasking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the job of forming a government by quoting from Lincoln’s brief Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865 – just a month before he was assassinated – as the US Civil War was winding down.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right; let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,” Rivlin said, noting that these words appeared in the 1977 victory speech of his “teacher and guide” Menachem Begin.
(Lincoln’s original added God into the mix: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right; let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds...”)
It was a dramatic flourish to what ordinarily is a banal announcement: whom the president is mandating with forming a government. Generally, this is a rather straightforward decision: It goes to the head of the party that garnered the most votes in the last election.
But this time, as Rivlin hinted in recent days and as a significant part of the country was hoping, other considerations could come into play, such as the moral stature of the candidate leading the party that garnered the most votes – Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud.
Like a host on a reality game show, Rivlin, whose term in office will expire in just a few months, built up the drama in his 11-minute speech, saying at one point that he did not think anyone would be able to form a government, leading some to believe that he might not give the mandate to Netanyahu. But then, in the third paragraph before the end, he dispelled the drama and essentially said he had no other choice.
What stood out in Rivlin’s speech was his insistence on sticking within the confines of his role, not appropriating powers not his own. And in Israel of 2021, when the lines between the different branches of government are often blurred, there was something downright refreshing in Rivlin staying clearly within the boundaries of his office.
“I know the position held by many, that the president should not give the role to a candidate who is facing criminal charges, but according to the law and the decision of the courts, a prime minister can continue in his role even when he is facing charges,” he said.
“The President of the State of Israel is not a substitute for the legislature or for the judiciary,” he continued. “It is the role of the Knesset to decide on the substantive and ethical question of the fitness of a candidate facing criminal charges to serve as prime minister.”
THIS WAS Rivlin not coloring outside the lines, as so many have done recently.
A legal pundit on one of the television news shows on Monday, commenting on that day’s split-screen moment where Netanyahu was in court at the exact moment when the various parties were telling Rivlin whom they wanted to see as prime minister, said this was a case where everything was having an impact on everything else: the public protests on the judiciary, the judiciary on the president, the president on the legislature.
Rivlin sent a message in his speech and through his decision that in this drama, each branch of government has its role to play, and that the actors step beyond their boundaries at the peril of the state.
“This is not an easy decision on a moral and ethical basis, in my mind,” he said. “As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the State of Israel is not to be taken for granted. And I fear for my country. But I am doing what is required of me as president of the State of Israel, according to the law and to the ruling of the court, and realizing the will of the sovereign – the Israeli people.”
For months and even years we have seen boundaries blurred: the public and the media trying to get the judiciary to press charges against Netanyahu, the legislature contemplating laws to overrule the judiciary, the judiciary stepping on the toes of the legislature, the executive – in this case, Netanyahu – undermining the authority of the judiciary (see, for example, his speech Monday night complaining of a witch hunt against him and nothing less than an attempted coup by the State Prosecutor’s Office).
Rivlin stepped in and said enough is enough, that while there were many who did not want him to give the mandate to Netanyahu, based on moral and ethical considerations, that was not his call to make – that it is up to the law, and the law says a prime minister under indictment can serve as prime minister. Rivlin said he was not a substitute for the Knesset, which can change the law, or the judiciary, which had an opportunity recently to overturn it but did not.
Rivlin rose to the moment and set an example for staying within defined borders. Did he also rise to the ideals laid out in that Lincoln speech he quoted? Yes and no.
He did live up to Lincoln’s charge to be firm, as evident by his saying that he must do what was dictated by law and not anything that would call into question the integrity of the president’s office, even though many wanted him to do otherwise.
But Lincoln’s directive to show malice toward none was not evident throughout the speech. Rivlin obviously harbors no great affection for Netanyahu, and what he thinks of the prime minister serving another term was apparent not only in the words of his speech – “This is not an easy decision on a moral and ethical basis, in my mind” – but also in his failure to invite Netanyahu to his residence to receive the presidential nod, as is customary.
It is also unlikely that Rivlin’s words, or decision, will do anything to – as Lincoln put it – “bind up the nation’s wounds.”
The nation is split over whether Netanyahu is a saint who should continue serving as prime minister or a scoundrel who must be driven from that office, and Rivlin’s tasking him with forming the government will do nothing to resolve that issue or “bind the nation’s wounds” over that matter.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that in stark contrast to the situation when Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural address, the issue dividing Israel – Netanyahu – is a long, long way from leading to a civil war.