By Alan Johnson and Lorin Bell-Cross
When Shimon Peres’s term as president of Israel came to an end in July, many in Israel were fearful: Who could fill the shoes of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and elder statesman?
Their fears were deepened by the election of Peres’s successor: Reuven (“Rubi”) Rivlin, a veteran right-wing Likud Party parliamentarian, minister of communications under Ariel Sharon, opponent of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and someone opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
However, Rivlin’s CV did not prevent Haaretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper—and frequent critic of the Israeli government—from endorsing him. “Rivlin has preached the need for cooperation … extended a hand to the Arab factions, in sharp contrast to his colleagues on the right,” noted Haaretz, and he had “opposed the wave of nationalist legislation” in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, and “always maintained independent views, even in the face of strong prime ministers like Ariel Sharon and [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and that is an important trait for a president.”
Haaretz was not alone in that judgment. Former Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, several Arab members of the Knesset (MKs), and left-wing Meretz MK Ilan Gilon also endorsed Rivlin.
They hoped that, despite Rivlin’s right-wing party allegiance, his track record of support for democracy, civil liberties, minority rights, and the independence of the Knesset—something which had angered many in his own Likud Party and the Israeli right—would define his presidency
These left-wingers remembered that back in 2010, when Rivlin was speaker of the Knesset, he helped prevent the removal of MK Haneen Zoabi’s parliamentary privileges by right-wing Israeli members (many from his own party) over her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla. He also opposed other controversial (some called them “anti-democratic”) legislative proposals during his time in the Knesset.
Rivlin’s brand of Zionism—opposition to any division of Israeli territory coupled with the demand for absolute equality for all citizens—can be traced to his childhood in Jerusalem. Rivlin’s father, Yosef Yoel, was an Arabist who translated the Koran and One Thousand and One Nights into Hebrew. Rivlin was brought up to revere the ideals of coexistence and equality, an education he alluded to in his Presidential acceptance speech:
On a balcony in Jerusalem my father was sitting with two of his friends: one a member of the Muslim Nashashibi family, the other a member of the Christian Faraj family … In genuine friendship they turned to my father and said: “Rivlin, you have nothing to worry about, even if the Germans do reach here, we will protect you all.”
Looking them straight in the eye, my father said: “Montgomery will be victorious, we shall be victorious and Rommel will be defeated. A Jewish state will be established here, and in our state I will not need to protect you both, for you will be full partners and equal citizens.”
Today, the Israeli center-left is feeling pretty good about its wager on Rivlin. His commitment to equality, as well as his rejection of sectarian extremism, has been a key feature of his presidency thus far. His determination to embrace all sections of Israeli society, and to be seen to do so, has been welcomed by the Israeli public.
Even before officially entering office, Rivlin worked with Shimon Peres to calm the country following the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, and the murder of a Palestinian Arab Israeli teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem prior to this summer’s Gaza conflict. The two men wrote, “The murder of a young man or woman, a Jew or an Arab, is an act that cannot be accepted … the choice is in our hands: To give in to the destructive worldview posed to us by the racists and the extremists, or to fight it unconditionally; to give in to wild and vicious Muslim or Jewish terrorism—or to put an end to it by all means possible.”
Indeed, in his efforts to reach out to Israel’s Arab citizens, some think Rivlin is going further than Peres ever did. On October 26th, he attended the memorial marking the Kfar Kassem massacre (the killing of 49 Arab civilians in a village by Israeli border policemen in 1956), becoming the first Israeli president to do so. In his speech he struck this note: “The Arab population in Israel is not a marginal group … We are destined to live side by side and we share the same fate … The criminal killing that took place in your village is an irregular and dark chapter in the history of the relationship between Arabs and Jews living here … A terrible crime was committed here … We must look directly at what happened. It is our duty to teach this difficult incident and to draw lessons.”
And in an almost unprecedented move for an Israeli president (a largely ceremonial role), Rivlin even challenged Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the controversial “Jewish state” bill. “Judaism and democracy, democracy and Judaism, said as one utterance, are combined, and continue to be so,” he said, going on to point out that “these are not merely words. This is the beating heart of the state of Israel. A state established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand, and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down.”
In short order and without fuss, Rubi Rivlin has answered those who doubted whether anyone could replace Shimon Peres. And one senses there is a lot more to come.
Lorin Bell-Cross is the assistant editor of the journal Fathom and was previously a member of Sadaka-Reut, a youth organization dedicated to promoting justice and equality among Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.