The election of Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin was no victory for the right-wing. He may be a staunch believer in the Greater Israel dream and an opponent of the two-state solution, but his parliamentary record, especially as Knesset speaker in the previous term, flies in the face of the nationalist, “Islamophobic” and anti-democratic spirit that has infused that wing of Israeli politics. Rivlin paid the price, losing the speaker’s gavel in this Knesset and earning the enmity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
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Rivlin’s victory was a loss for politicians who instead of serving Israeli voters and their party’s platform, serve the interests of the country’s business establishment. This isn’t yet a transformation of Israeli politics, more Knesset members voted in the first round for big-business favorites Dalia Itzik and MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah), and if MK Silvan Shalom (Likud) and MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) hadn’t been forced out of the race at the last moment by police investigations, either of them could well have won on Tuesday. But Rivlin’s ultimate victory in the second round was also a belated win for decency and probity in public life — part of a wave that only recently swept away a former prime minister, foiled the anointment of a Bank of Israel governor and immersed a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff in two investigations.
For Rivlin, this is a personal victory, after losing seven years ago to outgoing President Shimon Peres and personal and political vengeance against those who tried to finish off his political career. As president, he will do what Netanyahu has never done as prime minister, visit Arab towns and villages and treat all citizens, no matter their religion or ethnicity, as equal. If during his term, an Israeli government ever gets around to signing a peace agreement; with a heavy heart he will bow to the democratic decision and work on preserving the nation’s unity through a traumatic retreat from the West Bank settlements he so loves.
The biggest loser is not Itzik, who came in third, or even Sheetrit. If either of them had won, it would have been open-season on their personal finances and every shady appointment they ever made. In the current public and media atmosphere, they may have not even made it to the president’s residence before a procession of skeletons emerged from their closets. The biggest loser is without a doubt Netanyahu, whose political weakness, isolation within Likud, indecisiveness and toxic mixing of personal animosity with statesmanship has been on display like never before. After the desperate farce of trying to find an alternative to Rivlin, then the short-lived attempt to cancel the presidency and finally the last-minute phone-call to non-Israeli Elie Wiesel, begging him to run for the job, Netanyahu now has a new president who doesn’t believe a word he says and owes him nothing. Worse, the Likud knives are already out for the prime minister, with the party’s faithful enraged at his conduct, particularly that he could only muster a few weak words to endorse Rivlin when it was too late and almost lost the party the presidency.
Along with Rivlin, the biggest winner was Interior Minister Gideon Saar, architect of Rivlin’s campaign in recent days. Saar is today starting his next campaign, to undermine Netanyahu’s leadership and ultimately replace him as Likud leader. This is the place to mention another big loser who escaped attention — Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He didn’t officially endorse any candidate, but there was no secret — he backed Dalia Itzik and would have supported anyone but Rivlin. Itzik came only third and Rivlin prevailed. This is Lieberman’s third political failure in 18 months. The electoral alliance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu was his idea. Not only did it fail in the last Knesset election, but Likud has since rejected him, dashing his hope to succeed Netanyahu as party leader. Eight months ago, his puppet Moshe Leon lost the Jerusalem mayoral elections and now this. Lieberman’s last slender hope of one day becoming prime minister is convincing Netanyahu to leave Likud and set up a new centrist party with him.
The list of losers should also include the leaders of the two main left-wing parties — Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On. Herzog disgraced himself by endorsing Ben-Eliezer, who in the next few months will be inhabiting the police stations and probably the court, rather than the Knesset and President’s Residence. Gal-On announced that Meretz would be supporting Sheetrit in the second round of voting — putting her support behind a man who may be in favor of a two-state solution but whose social policies and personal life fly in the face of the liberal politics that Meretz pretends to represent. The fact that the Israeli left failed to gather around a suitable candidate in these presidential elections is a further illustration of how leaderless the “peace camp” has become.
At the end of the day, there’s one ultimate winner — Peres, who in six weeks will be leaving with his honor intact. Peres was a friend of all the tycoons and would not have stood up to the kind of scrutiny now being focused on politicians — he is getting out just in time. But he succeeded in seven years in restoring the presidency, so tarnished by rapist Moshe Katsav, a crowning achievement to his unparalleled record of national service. The entire necessity of a president for Israel has been brought into question by this long and dirty campaign, but for now, Peres has a worthy and decent successor.