Israel elections 101: Meet the man who picks the next prime minister

Since assuming the mostly ceremonial post of president in July, Reuven Rivlin has emerged as the highest-ranking Israeli advocate for Arab rights during one of the worst periods of Jewish-Arab tensions.

Bryan Pace/The Daily News/AP
President of Israel Reuven Rivlin pauses during a meeting with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton at the Park Lane Hotel, in New York, on Jan. 28, 2015.

In Israel’s heated political atmosphere, he’s been called a prince, a sycophant, a traitor – even president of Hezbollah.

But Reuven Rivlin is in fact the president of the Jewish state, and a surprisingly popular one at that.

Few expected President Rivlin to be a peacemaker like his predecessor, Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, since as a right-wing lawmaker Mr. Rivlin opposed Palestinian statehood.

In his first year in the mostly ceremonial presidency, however, Rivlin has emerged as the most high-ranking advocate for Israel’s Arab minority, a voice of moderation amid what some say are the worst Jewish-Arab tensions the country has experienced.

Rivlin, who comes from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, was one of the few leaders to publicly criticize protests against a Jewish-Arab wedding during the vitriolic atmosphere of the Gaza war last summer.

This fall, he became the first Israeli president ever to visit the annual commemoration of the 1956 massacre in Kfar Qassem, in which Israeli border policemen killed 49 Arab civilians. He condemned it as a “terrible crime.”

And in December, he and his wife, Nechama, welcomed Jewish and Arab first-graders to their home after arsonists burned a classroom of their bilingual Jerusalem school and scribbled “Death to Arabs” on its walls.

All this from a man who, as speaker of the Knesset, where he was more free to weigh in on political matters, said, “I wholeheartedly believe that the land of Israel is ours in its entirety.”

Rivlin is often seen as a man of contradictions. He is as nationalist as kippa-wearing Jewish settlers on the hilltops of the West Bank, yet as strong a voice for Arab rights as poster-waving leftists in Tel Aviv.

His mission as president

But there is no ambiguity about his self-appointed mission as president: to bolster Israeli democracy and fulfill its promise of equality for all.

From Rivlin’s childhood acquaintances to his colleagues today, all say this is a cause to which he has long been loyal, even when it meant going against his own party.

“It's not that he invented a platform just before arriving at the president's house,” says David Saranga, his senior foreign affairs adviser. “This has been high on his agenda, emotionally and ideologically, for many years.”

Indeed, his work in the Knesset over the past quarter-century has earned him the respect of lawmakers across the political spectrum.

“When Rivlin believes in something, he is prepared to go all the way for it,” said longtime Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi at the time of Rivlin’s election, championing his track record of fighting “racist” legislation. “Besides, there is good chemistry between us.”

A time of unprecedented tensions

When Rivlin took up his post last July 24, Israel was in the throes of its third and most devastating conflict with Gaza in less than six years. The month before, Palestinian militants had kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, sparking a Jewish revenge murder of a Palestinian teenager.

The country was simmering with hate. It boiled over on Facebook, in violent protests, and – after the war – in a series of attacks in Jerusalem.

“I think this wave we encountered recently is something that does not have a precedent in our history,” says Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, head of the Arab-Jewish Relations project at the Israel Democracy Institute, who has met with Rivlin to discuss various initiatives for the Arab sector.

Rivlin condemned each attack. But he refused to join those who used them to stir up hatred against all Palestinians – even after a particularly brutal attack in November, in which a Palestinian duo, armed with butcher knives and a gun, massacred four rabbis in a synagogue. Less than a week later, Rivlin spoke out against a bill that would have enshrined Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that its democratic character was no less important than its Jewishness. The acrimonious national debate over that bill helped bring about the downfall of the government.

In addition to his ceremonial duties and his championing of tolerance and civility, Rivlin also will have an important political role to play following Israel's March 17 elections, in which Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and the opposition Labor are running neck and neck. As president, Rivlin picks the party leader he deems most likely to succeed in forming the next government, not necessarily the leader of the largest party, and he has said he will pick the person who can form the largest coalition.

Democratic debates around the table

Rivlin’s deeply held democratic principles are a legacy of his upbringing. The first Rivlin in the Holy Land, Hillel, arrived in Jerusalem in 1809 from Lithuania, impelled by the messianic urgings of his rabbi, the revered Gaon of Vilna.

The family, which became one of the most prominent in the city, played an active role in strengthening the city’s small Jewish community and expanding its foothold.

President Rivlin grew up in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, where his mother, Rae, was known to just add water to her Shabbat soup pot to accommodate crowds that sometimes grew to 25 or more around their table.

“It was very lively, people were debating all the time. Everybody was talking at once. The person who could push their way into saying their opinion got to say it. And reigning over this was his father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin,” recalls Lilly Rivlin, a first cousin of the president. “When I think to myself, how has Ruvi gotten to be the spokesperson of democracy of Israel, it’s from this kind of thing. It was very democratic.”

Rivlin’s father, was a rare Orientalist who was fluent in Arabic. He taught at a bilingual school in Jerusalem and translated the Quran into Hebrew – as well as the Arabic collection of folk tales, “One Thousand and One Nights.”

'Prince' in the Jabotinsky dynasty

Rivlin, who over the past few years has worked diligently to become conversational in Arabic himself, said in a recent speech at the United Nations that his father believed in “the importance of dialogue and the cultural significance of the Quran for all the children of Abraham.”

Yet both father and son modeled their politics on the ideology propounded by Zeev Jabotinsky, whose Revisionist Zionist principles held that the Jewish claims to the land of Israel superseded those of Arabs, and would be secured through power, not persuasion.

“There can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestine Arabs,” Jabotinsky wrote in a famous 1923 missive advocating the establishment of an “iron wall” between Jews and their neighbors, until Arabs gave up trying to breach it. “Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizen[s], or Arab national integrity.”

Many right-wing leaders today, including Mr. Netanyahu, invoke Jabotinsky’s principles as justification for their security policies. But Rivlin, considered a “prince” in the ideological dynasty of Jabotinsky because of his father’s status in the Herut party, is among a shrinking minority that also emphasizes the other pillar of Jabotinsky’s doctrine: equal rights for all.

'My house is your house'

Rivlin recently welcomed all the heads of Israeli Arab municipalities and regional councils to his home.

“My house is your house,” he told them. “I am here today, to listen and to hear from you."

His manner was brusque at times, and he spent much of the time staring at the floor and sometimes shifting uncomfortably in his seat as the leaders, one by one, implored him to address the discrimination and inequality their communities face. But while some say he lacks the natural statesmanship of Peres, Jews and Arabs who know him well say he accords a sense of honor regardless of rank.

“He takes things seriously to his heart, he always did,” says Dan Meridor, a fellow Likudnik who grew up across the street from Rivlin and served in the Knesset with him. “Sometimes it borders on shedding tears or his voice cracking when he’s very moved by what he’s saying.… This gives a human flavor; it's not just technical rhetoric that someone wrote for him in a speech.”

But for at least some of the Palestinians who make up Israel’s Arab minority, Rivlin has a limited ability to address their grievances. That’s due in part to the nature of his post that allows him to be more a moral authority than a political force. But it also has to do with his background, some argue.

“Rivlin is trying, no doubt. He is an honest man,” says a Palestinian intellectual with citizenship in Israel. “But he is handcuffed by his party, and a little bit by his past.”

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