(June 17, 2014 / JNS)
As a well-respected parliamentarian who has served as the government’s Minister of Communications and the speaker of the Knesset, Israeli president-elect MK Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin has the expected profile for his position. But when he takes the reins in July, Rivlin’s strong nationalistic ideology and low-key international presence will provide an immediate contrast to outgoing President Shimon Peres.
“He won’t have the international stature of Shimon Peres, who was a former prime minister, defense minister, and foreign minister,” said pollster Mitchell Barak, director of Keevoon Research and a former spokesperson for Peres in the Office of the President.
Barak told JNS.org that there is a “stark contrast” between Peres and Rivlin. Peres, at age 90, continues to be a vocal supporter of a two-state solution, and was an architect of the now-defunct Oslo peace process—a role for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize along with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat in the early ’90s. The 74-year-old Rivlin, on the other hand, is an opponent of a two-state solution and a promoter of what he calls “a greater Israel” between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, in which Palestinians would be granted full and equal rights. Rivlin opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
The post of president carries significant weight in Israel, even though most of the president’s functions are largely ceremonial. The role is similar to that of a monarch in many of the world’s parliamentary democracies.
In addition to welcoming world leaders and high-profile guests to the country, the president’s most noteworthy function is to officially charge a party leader to form a governing coalition—essentially selecting the prime minister. Yet, even this function is largely ceremonial, as election results and the willingness of smaller parties to join a leader’s government are the primary factors weighed in determining which leader can successfully form a ruling coalition.
Peres, however, often used the post of president to advance his political agenda, as a super-ambassador of the state of Israel. He often spoke with world leaders about the prospects for a peace agreement, and recently met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican for a joint prayer session with Pope Francis.
Based on statements that Rivlin made during the campaign, and immediately following his election, it does not appear that Rivlin intends to utilize the post in the same way as his immediate predecessor.
“Rivlin promised that we would not make partisan, political announcements,” said Professor Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “So he might be very helpful, not for external politics, rather for internal politics.”
In an address to the Knesset immediately following his election victory on June 10, Rivlin stated his intention to represent “all the citizens of Israel: Jews, Arabs, Druze, rich, poor, religious, and less religious.” The Likud party member added that in his new post, he will no longer adhere to partisan politics, but rather will serve as “a man of all the people.”
In his first official interview since the election, Rivlin told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth that as president he would not lobby “in favor or against an agreement with the Palestinians.” He said that “if the Israeli government will inform me that there is an agreement, and if the Knesset will approve it, as head of state I will do everything possible to make sure it is implemented.”
“Ruby Rivlin is a very strong supporter of ‘greater Israel,’ but at the same time he has demonstrated his commitment to democracy. He is kind of a nationalist liberal, and a true democrat, which is a very rare kind these days. He is probably the last one,” Rahat told JNS.org.
According to Rahat, it is Rivlin’s longstanding commitment to Israel and the democratic process that helped him win the election, garnering strong support from opposition party members—including Arab Knesset members—as well as support from his own Likud party.
“He was probably the best candidate because he was demonstrating his abilities to be independent and to be loyal to an institution when he was speaker of the Knesset,” said Rahat. “He really demonstrated his abilities, his will to stand up and to be non-partisan.”
Israeli columnist Gideon Allon reported that Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi said regarding Rivlin’s election, “The president of the country has a secondary role in political matters. Peres is closer to me in his political stances, but he did not bring the peace process closer. By comparison, Rivlin fights with all his might against racist legislation and for equality and strengthening the status of the Arab Knesset members, and he has paid a political price for that. When Rivlin believes in something, he is prepared to go all the way for it. Besides, there is good chemistry between us.”
Mitchell Barak elaborated on Rivlin’s ability to gain support from across the partisan spectrum, despite today’s fractious political environment.
“The advantage is that Rivlin is respected by both the political left and political right,” Barak told JNS.org. “Rivlin got a ringing endorsement from Avraham Burg in Haaretz, and he had the support of [the Labor party’s] Shelly Yachimovich.”
“The right likes him because he’s an old-time [Zionist pioneer Ze’ev] Jabotinsky guy, and he’s hard right on a lot of political issues, including a Palestinian state,” added Barak. “The reason the left likes him is because he respects democracy and he upholds democracy. He protects minorities and protects the rule of law.”
According to Barak, Rivlin will have no trouble serving the ceremonial functions of head of state with foreign leaders, in addition to assisting in the advancement of domestic issues.
“He’s a regular guy,” Barak said. “He has a great sense of humor. He has a personality. People that meet him warm to him. He has relationships with a lot of leaders and legislators from around the world. Being chairman of the Knesset, he’s welcomed many world leaders who have come to the Knesset. He’s led delegations to foreign parliaments. … Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum can say, ‘That’s a man that deserves to be speaker of the Knesset, and that’s a man who deserves to be president.’”