Netanyahu and Rivlin.
Netanyahu and Rivlin at the Knesset. Photo by Tess Scheflan
Text size

Many Israelis were happy to see Likud’s Reuven Rivlin elected as Israel’s 10th president Tuesday, but even those who weren’t could find consolation in the kind of pleasure for which there is no English word: Schadenfreude. The Book of Proverbs says that enjoyment of other people’s misfortunes “shall not go unpunished” but that has since been qualified by the popular Hebrew saying “there is no joy like malicious joy”, which seems to be especially true when the reason for one’s relish is Benjamin Netanyahu.

Try as he might, the prime minister could not hide his displeasure with the Rivlin victory that he’d so desperately tried to subvert in recent weeks. The prime minister’s setback stung even more because of the deceptively tantalizing surge of Tzipi Livni’s candidate, Meir Sheetrit, who competed against Rivlin in the second round of voting. But like Moses at Mount Nebo, Netanyahu saw the Promised Land from afar, but could not enter.

The prime minister had stopped at nothing in his effort to avoid Rivlin’s anointment but in the end he both overreached and underachieved. Like the famous Talmudic schlemiel who was punished thrice for bringing his master rancid fish – he was forced to eat the fish but couldn’t finish, was whipped instead but begged for mercy and in the end was thrown out of town - Netanyahu clutched at multiple straws but always came up short. He tried every trick in the book - canceling the presidency, postponing the election, producing an alternative candidate – even if, like Elie Wiesel, they weren’t Israeli citizens – but wound up with bobkes for his efforts except a very public humiliation.

Whether he was 1. Peeved with the independence that Rivlin showed as Knesset Chairman; 2. Afraid that a President Rivlin might try to block his return to office after the next elections; 3. Was trying to placate his wife’s famous antipathy to the president-elect or 4. All or none of the above - Netanyahu emerged from the skirmish tarred and feathered, in eyes of his party and his voters.

Netanyahu is still considered to be irreplaceable both as Likud leader and as a viable candidate for prime minister, but the Rivlin debacle has weakened his hold on his party, strengthened the hand of his rivals and earned him the public’s scorn, a hazardous commodity for any political leader’s image and standing. The feeble public support for Rivlin that Netanyahu finally and grudgingly mumbled last week did nothing to placate angry Likud stalwarts who feel that the prime minister had turned his back on Rivlin personally, on the party politically, and, grievous of all ideologically, on the Greater Land of Israel, that Rivlin so unabashedly promotes.

And while Rivlin enjoyed the support of myriad members of Knesset, including that of Arab MKs, for his modest ways, his down-to-earth Israeliness and his stalwart defense of democratic decency in the Knesset, it is his life-long devotion to Judea and Samaria and similarly steadfast opposition to a two-state solution that will stand out as the defining difference between him and the outgoing Shimon Peres, at least in the eyes of most foreign observers. The indefatigable 91-year old Peres, whose term in office will end on July 27, has served for the past seven years as a sort of consolation prize for foreign leaders exasperated with Netanyahu’s here-today-gone-tomorrow allegiance to a negotiated peace.

With Rivlin at the helm, there will be no sugarcoating the Netanyahu government’s right-wing positions, no one to champion the two-state solution for international audiences or the Israel public.

Rivlin has pledged to retreat from his pro-settlement advocacy and to “represent all the people” while he is in office. He will undoubtedly keep his word, at least while there is no clear and present danger to the Israel from-river-to-sea that he believes in. But if prospects for peace were to improve, under Netanyahu or his successor, it’s best to take Rivlin’s oath of impartiality with more than a grain of salt: under similar circumstances, as Knesset speaker, Rivlin threw caution and constitutionality to the wind and actively campaigned against then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his 2005 Gaza disengagement. And he did so with gusto and zeal.