With today's presidential vote, Israel is poised to pass the largely ceremonial position from the hands of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and champion of a Palestinian state to those of a politician who supports annexing the West Bank.
Israel’s parliament elected Reuven Rivlin, a legislator from the ruling Likud party, to replace Shimon Peres, who has been a staple on the Israeli political scene since its founding and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
Mr. Peres spent the past seven years of his decades-long political career expanding the presidency, which has virtually no executive powers, into that of Israel’s top diplomat. For the past several years, he has been a dovish counterweight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, becoming the international community's preferred interlocutor. He even conducted backchannel talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011.
Mr. Rivlin, a former parliamentary speaker who defeated Meir Shitrit of the dovish Hatnuah party with a solid majority, supports annexing the West Bank to Israel, a position discarded by the Israeli mainstream since the 1993 Oslo accords that set out an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as a goal. However, the idea of annexation has started to make a comeback among many in Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.
But Rivlin is also a maverick of the Israeli right for his belief in granting equal citizenship rights to Palestinians in the West Bank once Israel annexes the territory. That would effectively change Israel from a state with a solid Jewish majority to a binational Jewish-Arab country, requiring a radical overhaul of the political system.
That outcome is considered anathema by the Israeli mainstream, including Mr. Netanyahu, who threw his support behind the creation of a Palestinian state to avoid arriving at a binational state.
Rivlin’s politics challenge the Israeli right as much as the international consensus on a two-state solution by forcing those who support annexation to face the irreconcilability between democracy and a Jewish majority state if the West Bank becomes part of Israel, says Ofer Zalzburg, an Israel analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Rivlin has a strong commitment to liberal democracy. He’s the only one who is willing to go all the way: who is willing to annex the land, and willing to grant full rights to those living there,” says Mr. Zalzburg. “It’s not in line with other trends in the Knesset which are essentially ultra-nationalist, illiberal, and anti-democratic.”
The new president is a representative of Likud's earlier days, when it aspired to control all of the biblical land of Israel, which would include parts of Jordan, but also supported strong protection for minority rights.
However, Likud today is dominated by settlers and religious nationalists who have steered the party toward a more illiberal stance. Rivlin has emerged as a defiant defender of the rights of those on the left and the Arab minority, putting him at loggerheads with Netanyahu and much of his own party but winning him support from some on the Israeli left in the presidential race.
"He’s a darling of the old-time Likud. You can be hard line, but you can protect minorities in Israel," says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American public opinion expert. "He respects minorities and stands up for the rule of law. A lot of people respected him for that."
Mr. Rivlin won despite Netnayahu's intensive efforts against his candidacy. The prime minister sought to draft Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, then tried to postpone the vote by floating the idea of reforming the presidency. His personal campaign kicked up protests within Likud and left Netanyahu looking politically weak and unfocused, Mr. Barak says.
Despite Netanyahu and Peres's divergent political views, the prime minister may miss his peacenik president.