The newly-elected president of Israel Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin is known to be a vegetarian. Nevertheless, the election campaign for the Israeli presidency felt more like sheer cannibalism, though for the most part, not due to the actions of the new president.
Choosing a president in Israel is more a selection process than election, as it is decided by the 120 members of the Israeli Knesset. The process started with 7 candidates, but two were forced to abandon their campaign owing to sexual harassment or corruption allegations. As for the other candidates, they did their best to tarnish each other’s reputations. The two non-politician candidates Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge, and Prof Dan Sachtman, a Nobel Prize laureate, did not even make it to the second round. Gone are the days that nominees who made their mark outside politics could become contenders with a realistic chance of becoming president in Israel. The process of selecting the new Israeli president was a striking illustration of how fragmented the Israeli political system is, and how politicians would rather settle old (and new) scores than vote for the best candidate for the job. It was a dog-eat-dog approach, and the last one standing was the veteran Likud politician Reuven Rivlin.
Very few executive powers
It is worth noting, that the office of presidency in Israel is mainly ceremonial in nature, with very few executive powers. Two notable exceptions are the Israeli president’s power to grant amnesty to prisoners, and that of nominating an MK, whose task is to form a government following consultation with members of Knesset. In principle the president is likely to adhere to what the government recommends in cases of amnesty or the advice by a majority of MKs when it comes to forming a coalition.
However, considering that the new president-elect holds rather hawkish political views he might show more resistance towards the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of the peace process. Moreover, elections in Israel usually yield quite ambiguous results. A seasoned politician at the helm of the presidency could leave room to manoeuvre and impact the process. He has notoriously strained relations, to put it mildly, with Netanyahu which might badly affect the relations between the offices of the president and the prime minister.
Peres an iconic figure
Mr. Rivlin is starting his presidency not only in the wake of a murky process that granted him the position, but he is also replacing an iconic figure in Israeli politics and beyond, President Shimon Peres. These two veteran politicians have very little in common. Mr. Peres has been ever-present in a majority of the most important decision making junctions in Israeli history since her independence. More than anything else he was identified for more than twenty years with the peace process and the two-state solution, for which he was awarded Nobel Peace Prize. Even nearing his 91st birthday he is still a dreamer with realistic expectations of peace and reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is a far cry from Mr. Rivlin’s political views vis-à-vis the relationship with the Palestinians.
Rivlin’s standpoint on a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complex, not to mention vague, and even confusingYossi Mekelberg
The irony is that he is described by those who know him well as a very affable human being with a common touch. Few would question his commitment to democratic processes and rules, or that he will address the Arab minority in Israel attentively and sensitively in his new role. As the Speaker of the House he irked the likes of Netanyahu and Lieberman in his active stance against anti-democratic legislation that the two espoused, especially the ones aimed at discriminating the Arab population in Israel. When he became the speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin made his first official visit to the Arab-Israeli city of Umm el-Fahm, a place with a reputation of little to no sympathy towards the idea of the Jewish state – the gesture was well noted among Israeli Arabs.
Yet, Mr. Rivlin’s standpoint on a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complex, not to mention vague, and even confusing. He is ardently opposed to a two state solution and he never minced his words about it. It was suggested that he supports some version of a one-state solution. He was quoted as saying that he "would rather accept Palestinians as Israeli citizens than divide Israel and the West Bank in a future two-state peace solution." It does not necessarily represent a view which suggests discarding the Zionist ideology of a Jewish state. It represents his ideological roots in the Zionist right of the 1930s and 40s, which paradoxically held liberal views and denied the right of Palestinians to self-determination at the same time. In principle this view holds that every citizen should have the same political rights, and at the same time a strong conviction that if most Jews would move to live in Israel, the Jewishness of the state would be guaranteed. In an interview with the Times of Israel, he acknowledged that Israelis and Palestinians are “destined to live together,” but in the same breath he asserted that “I’m a utopianist, [who has] a vision that suddenly all the Jewish people [from around the world] will come to live here… And if there were 10 million Jews here, we wouldn’t have to give up on anything.” Needless to say, this was an expression of wishful thinking, more delusional than utopian. More alarming is the suggestion that Palestinian political rights and their right for self-determination depend on their numerical proportion to the Jewish population – not an elementary right enshrined in history and international law.
A worry to the two-state solution
It is very unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will solicit much advice on the peace process or any other issues from the new president. Their personal relations hit rock bottom years ago. It was Netanyahu who blocked Mr Rivlin from being elected for another term as the Speaker of the Knesset, and was actively involved in attempts to impede his route to the Israeli presidency. Netanyahu, himself is far from being a champion of peace, might all the same, still miss the presence of President Peres and his sound advice based on experience and wisdom. The more emotional right wing Rivlin, will only reinforce Netanyahu’s skepticism of a peaceful solution with the Palestinians instead of challenging him, as Mr. Peres did.
If Rivlin’s time as the Speaker of the Knesset can serve as an indicator for his presidency, he will do his best to serve all segments of society equally. Nevertheless, the institution of the presidency in Israel symbolizes unity and commonality of purpose of the state and its people. Electing to the highest position in the country someone like Reuven Rivlin, who opposes a peace agreement based on two state solution, should worry everyone who would like such a solution to become a reality.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.