Rivlin's telediplomacy during the coronavirus pandemic

Rivlin says the coronavirus crisis ‘has made us feel more than ever that we are one family with a shared history, shared values and a shared destiny’

Diaspo President Reuven Rivlin and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi host a Zoom call with lone soldiers in Israel and around the world on April 7, instead of hosting them at the President’s Residence as in previous years. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Diaspo President Reuven Rivlin and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi host a Zoom call with lone soldiers in Israel and around the world on April 7, instead of hosting them at the President’s Residence as in previous years.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
On a busy day, President Reuven Rivlin may host as many as three major events at the President’s Residence. Generally speaking, there are groups of between 200 to 300 people who are there to mark special events of the organizations or institutions with which they are affiliated.
Sometimes the events are much smaller and involve only the executive members of such organizations and institutions. Smaller still, but with occasional exceptions, are the ceremonies for the presentation of credentials by new ambassadors.
None of these events took place over the past two months, although Rivlin has had a few visitors who maintained a semblance of social space. Visitors to the President’s Residence, including members of his family, are all tested for the coronavirus before they enter.
Rivlin has been known to excuse himself from mega-events after delivering his address. Sometimes it’s to keep an urgent appointment; sometimes it’s affairs of state that cannot wait; and sometimes it’s because he’s been informed of an important phone call from a high-ranking local or overseas official.
When he’s not receiving visitors, Rivlin travels all over the country to army bases, Arab villages, medical centers, hi-tech industries, schools and institutions of higher learning. Occasionally he also attends tribute events for leading authors or entertainers.
During the coronavirus crisis, Rivlin hasn’t taken any trips around the country. The farthest he’s been is to the roadblock on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway at the entrance to the capital. Official trips abroad that he planned for this year are unlikely to come off; nor will trips to Israel by Rivlin’s overseas counterparts (which all in all will actually save the state a considerable sum of money).
But Rivlin has not been twiddling his thumbs. In a digital era in which social media is king, Rivlin has resorted to conference calls, videos, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom and other platforms to talk to heads of other countries, spiritual leaders in Israel and abroad, captains of industry, representatives of the Diaspora’s communities, diplomats, political and economic figures, army officers and more.
He’s taken time out to read stories to children, as well as to send various messages to the nation, get-well messages to Prince Charles and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a condolence message to the family of Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, former chief Sephardi rabbi, and appropriate messages for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism, and Independence Day.
He also examined appeals for pardons from people who had been sentenced to community service, but were afraid of risking their health and possibly their lives in performing the duties to which they had been assigned.
Rivlin made it clear there would be no blanket pardon, but that each case would be dealt with on its individual merits.
Pardons, clemency and official appointments are among the life-changing tasks that are part of the president’s purview. But the role of the country’s head of state is largely ceremonial. Without all the usual events that he presides over, Rivlin had to do something to make himself relevant.
The stalemated political situation did offer him some leverage, as by law the president tasks a member of Knesset to form a government. Prior to deciding on who should be granted that responsibility, the president consults with representatives of each party within the Knesset and asks for their recommendations from among the existing candidates, neither of whom had sufficient parliamentary backing to form a government.
Three elections in the space of year, plus his attempts to prevent a fourth from taking place, thrust Rivlin temporarily into the limelight. So did his own flouting of regulations about solo Seders, which he asked the rest of the Jewish population to observe, but violated the instruction himself.
Telediplomacy was an excellent vehicle to enable him to remain relevant.
In January, Rivlin hosted a large number of mostly European royals and heads of state, and since the virus had hit all their countries in the interim, it gave him a good excuse to call them to empathize and to compare notes on measures taken in their respective countries.
On the phone, Rivlin spoke to two royals – King Felipe of Spain and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.
Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Israel at the end of December 2019 had diplomatic relations with 162. Of these, Rivlin spoke to leaders of about 10%, as well as to Pope Francis, with whom he not only discussed the misery the coronavirus is bringing to families around the globe, but also took the opportunity to wish the pontiff well for Easter.
The counterparts that he spoke to included Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, who was had been due to pay a state visit to Israel during Independence Day week. On April 26, Rivlin and Foreign Minister Israel Katz hosted a reception for the diplomatic corps and members of the clergy in Israel via a videoconference. “Although we are apart, we have never needed each other more,” Rivlin told them. “We hope that Israel’s technology of which we are so proud can contribute to the global effort to find solutions to make our world safer and healthier.”
Local calls were also made to church leaders to whom Rivlin conveyed Easter greetings and discussed mutual difficulties in coping with restrictions related to the virus. He spoke to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and acting head of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church in Israel Archbishop Youssef Mata.
Aware of the concerns of wage earners and owners of small businesses who had been out on furlough indefinitely and had no means of earning an income, Rivlin conducted a video conference with CEOs of leading companies who are members of the Economic Social Forum. He impressed on them the need for a viable economic recovery plan that would take all sectors of society into consideration, in the spirit of the strong being responsible for the weak.
From Rivlin’s perspective this was not a matter of handouts but of providing training programs to equip the weaker elements of society with the tools they need to find economically sound employment.
Utilizing video calls and Zoom, the president also spoke to people in the situation room in the Foreign Ministry to get updated on repatriation operations of Israelis stranded abroad and news of how Israeli diplomats in countries hit worse by coronavirus were faring.
He spoke to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and lone soldiers from different countries, who had considered going to their previous homes abroad for Passover, but decided that they neither wanted to risk infecting members of their families, nor did they want to spend time in quarantine at their various destinations and then again when they returned to Israel. So they spent Passover either on their army bases or in their homes.
Rivlin did not forget Diaspora Jewry, whose leaders play a vital albeit backstage role in telediplomacy. It’s extremely important to them and to Israel for them to be able to converse frequently with Israel’s national leadership, especially when so much antisemitism and other forms of racism are permeating the world.
In a videoconference call facilitated by the Foreign Ministry, Rivlin spoke with former New York City Council member and current CEO of the Jewish Metropolitan Council on Poverty (Met Council) David Greenfield and Rabbi Angela Buchdahal of Central Synagogue in New York; president of the UCEI, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni; Mary Kluk, national president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and World Jewish Congress vice president; London-based Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; Lebana Penkar, a member of the Board of the Indian Jewish Federation; Sidney Klajner, president of the SBIBAE welfare organization and Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in Sao Paulo; and Robert Ejnes, director of the CRIF, the French Jewish community’s umbrella organization.
Rivlin was deeply interested in how their communities were coping on two battlefields – coronavirus on the one hand, and a spike in antisemitic incidents on the other.
Among actual live face-to-face meetings, albeit at a distance beyond the norm, were tete-a-tetes with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Blue and White leader Benny Gantz; Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Moshe Amar; outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz; Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan; Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav; head of the IDF Manpower Directorate Maj.-Gen. Moti Almoz; UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov; the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon; outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon; chief of the UNSCO Coordination Unit Jonathan Lincoln; Egyptian Ambassador Khaled Azmi; and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog.
Most of the conversations revolved primarily around the coronavirus and the need for global solidarity in combating it.
On Independence Day, the president will come to people’s homes through an innovative Israeli development that transmits a hologram to mobile devices. At the end of his message, viewers can take a photograph with Rivlin as a memento to share on social media.
“I remember the first Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day that Israel’s flag was first raised to the top of the flagpole,” Rivlin says. “We felt like we were witnessing a miracle. And here we are today, 72 years later and I am together with you. In truth, it is really moving.”
In his Independence Day message to “Jewish communities around the world, friends and supporters of Israel everywhere,” the president said that while this year’s celebrations may be different, no modern-day plague can keep us from giving thanks for the miracle of a Jewish and democratic state after 2,000 years of exile, and for all of Israel’s accomplishments over the last 72 years.
“I know that Jewish communities around the world are celebrating Independence Day together with us. And although we cannot be together physically this year this crisis has made us feel more than ever that we are one family with a shared history, shared values and a shared destiny,” he said. “This is not the first time that we are celebrating independence in the face of great uncertainty. On May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, many were not even sure if the new state would survive. Our people’s determination, solidarity and creativity enabled us to overcome the great challenges we faced, and the State of Israel not only survived, but grew into a strong and vibrant democracy, built both on our ancient traditions and on our spirit of innovation.
“These same traits of determination, solidarity and creativity will enable us to overcome the great challenges we face due to the coronavirus and emerge even stronger and more unified. I look forward to celebrating with all of you next year in Israel and in Jerusalem.”
“Happy Independence Day!”