Reuven Rivlin: man of democracy, man of Jerusalem

(photo credit: Itzike - איציק אדרי [CC-BY-SA] Wikimedia Commons)

(photo credit: Itzike – איציק אדרי [CC-BY-SA] Wikimedia Commons)

The results are in! Reuven Rivlin has been voted in by the Knesset at Israel’s 10th president and will succeed Shimon Peres on July 24th.

There are going to be a myriad of articles on Rivlin, who is not that well known outside of Israel, so I am just going to contribute a few thoughts.

1) Although Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately supported Rivlin’s candidacy, it was belated and begrudging. Rivlin was not his first choice (it is difficult to determine who actually was) and there were several attempts to cajole last minute contenders to enter the race. Netanyahu even tried to postpone the election itself, hoping for some kind of miracle candidate to appear.

This is not to say that Netanyahu and Rivlin won’t be able to work together. They have their entire careers, as Rivlin is as much a standard-bearer of the “old Likud” as anyone that remains in the party. It may not be an ideal marriage, but neither was the partnership of Netanyahu and Peres, who disagree on many core Israeli issues.

2) Rivlin is Israel’s 2nd Jerusalemite president, after Yitzhak Navon. The reason why this is important is because, as a native of Jerusalem – and someone who can trace his lineage back 8 or 9 generations back in Judaism’s holiest city – he is undoubtably going to tout this heritage and advocate for maintaining Jerusalem’s unity regardless of the terms and conditions reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

3) Rivlin has been a vegetarian for some decades. I don’t know if he is the highest ranking Israeli politician who is a vegetarian, but in the land of Ariel Sharon I wouldn’t be surprised.

4) As one of the standard-bearers of the Likud Party, Rivlin is generally seen as someone who upholds Israeli democracy above all else. This is a carryover from Menachem Begin, the Likud Party’s founder and visionary statesman.

One particular story is how, as Speaker of the Knesset, he ignored calls to remove Arab MK Hanin Zoabi’s parliamentary privileges after her participation in the 2010 Gaza Flotilla. It was an unpopular decision, but a definitive sign of his moral compass. “Would they do that to a Jewish member?” he asked.

Rivlin’s respect for democracy will also allow him to support a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

5) I had the pleasure of sitting next to President-to-be Rivlin several weeks ago, during a Knesset event on Israel-Turkey relations. The guest speaker, former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, was speaking on the long history of positive relations between Turks and Jews – from Biblical times to the saving of Jews by Turkish ambassadors during the Second World War. Upon hearing Turkey’s role in the Holocaust, Rivlin muttered, “and what of the Struma?”

He was referring, of course, to the MV Struma, a Palestine-bound ship carrying hundreds of refugees from Europe that experience engine problems en route. Towed into Istanbul, the passengers were not allowed to leave the ship and ran short on food. Eventually, the ship was brought out to the Black Sea, abandoned, and sunk by a Soviet submarine.

Only one passenger survived. 60 members of Betar, a precursory movement to today’s Likud Party, perished.

Even if under his breath, Rivlin’s mention of the Struma affair shows his consciousness of Zionist and Jewish history. Balanced appropriately with his love of democracy, he could turn out a strong replacement for Shimon Peres, who revolutionized the presidential seat and restored honor to the post after a disastrous run by Moshe Katzav. Though I doubt he will have a similar penchant for social media, he may be the kind of president who will champion Israeli social issues and work on improving the lot of it’s citizens with his prickly, yet warm demeanor.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel