Man of the People

In a candid interview, Reuven Rivlin, the leading candidate to become Israel's next president, says the country does not need an intellectual or a paragon at the moment. 'The number one citizen doesn't have to be better than everyone else. He has to be good to everyone, he has to believe everyone and love everyone.'

About half the 80 Knesset members who took part in a poll conducted two months ago said they back Reuven Rivlin for president. Among the others, support was divided among Shimon Peres, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Colette Avital and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. But even most of those who did not back Rivlin saw him as their second choice. This is also the buzz in the corridors: "Ruby," as he's popularly known, is in the lead. Rivlin is the preference of most members of the House. If efforts to block him do not succeed in the final stretch, the veteran Jerusalem parliamentarian has a good chance of becoming Israel's ninth president.

So, when Nehama Rivlin opens the door of the second floor apartment in an ordinary-looking building in western Jerusalem, the visitor immediately wonders whether this very direct woman wearing wide jeans will replace Gila Katsav in a few months as First Lady. And when Ruby Rivlin sits down with the remote in front of the television set, shifting from a soccer game between Betar Jerusalem and Hapoel Kfar Sava and Channel 10 anchor Yaakov Eilon's interview with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the visitor immediately wonders whether this upstanding Likudnik is cut out to be His Honor the President. And whether the well-known Rivlinism, gushing with sentiment and an almost childlike love of humanity, will be the restorative needed to heal the presidential trauma that Moshe Katsav is leaving behind; whether it will be Rivlin who restores to the Presidential Residence the regal glory it has lost.

On the east wall hangs a black-and-white photograph of Prof. Yosef Rivlin shaking hands with Richard Nixon in New York in 1964. According to the family history, the Israeli from the solid Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia noted to the famous American statesman that both of them had lost in a presidential election (Rivlin was the Herut party's candidate for president in 1957, Nixon the Republican Party's presidential candidate in 1960). Yes, Nixon quipped, but only one of us translated the Koran.

The professor's son was born in 1939, in Jerusalem, to an ancient tribe that came to this country in 1809. At the end of the 1970s, Rivlin was leader of the Likud's Jerusalem branch. At the end of the 1980s, he became an MK. At first he was in the camp of Yitzhak Shamir, then of David Levy, afterward of Ariel Sharon. In 2001, he was appointed minister of communications. In 2003, he was elected speaker of the Knesset. And now he is devoting himself totally to the race for the presidency. He is determined to host in the Presidential Residence the big celebration to be held in two years' time to mark the bicentennial of the Rivlin tribe's settling in the Land of Israel.

Ancestral merit

Why Ruby? Why does Reuven Rivlin deserve to be the president of Israel?

"I tell you unequivocally: my father deserved to be president, and I have a chance to be president. Life in the country today gives me the chance to be president. It wasn't my idea. A year after I was Knesset speaker and did well and was very active, Avrum Burg [former Labor MK and speaker] came and said, You will be president. And after him came [Shas leader] Eli Yishai. And [former Labor minister] Ora Namir, who saw how fair I am to the Arab public. And [former Labor finance minister] Beiga Shohat. Those people saw me in action and thought I should be the next president, because the president has to be involved with the people, part of the people, one of the people, authentic."

You are not an intellectual, you are not exalted, you have no gravitas.

"Today an intellectual is not capable of fulfilling this role. Because today it involves a lot of nonsense. A lot of nonsense. Pomp and ceremony. A lot of empty things. A person who has the qualities of an intellectual will not be able to carry them out."

Don't you think that at a time when Israel is in the grip of such a deep leadership crisis, it needs a president who will not be a politician but a paragon?

"People have examined me in terms of the criteria according to which a president is examined nowadays. Today, people don't want Albert Einstein. Is it the admiration of the world that they want? Let the prime minister bring that. Admiration? Let the foreign minister bring that. Everyone comes to the role of president from the political echelon."

In other words, you yourself admit that you will not bring us the admiration of the world.

"I want to bring pride to my nation. The number one citizen does not have to be better than everyone else. He has to be good to everyone, believe everyone, love everyone. And that I have. I've proved it. I have support because it's known that I'm decent, one of the people, and have both feet on the ground. If someone of great stature were to appear, someone capable of offering salvation to the people of Israel, I would agree that he is more suited. You know, after I was elected speaker of the Knesset and people addressed me as Mr. Speaker, I would turn around to see who they were talking to."

So you yourself find your candidacy for the presidency a bit odd. It's a surprise to you.

"Yes, absolutely. When I think of my father, who was a candidate for president, and when I think of the founding fathers, I look at them with reverence and awe. They are icons. But me, even if I very much want to be, I am no icon. I have the power of persuasion, but even I cannot persuade myself that I am an icon. I am not, definitely not."

Did you always dream of becoming president?

"No. But everyone always knew that my father was a candidate for president. In 1957, [Menachem] Begin ran him against [Yitzhak] Ben Zvi. Ben Zvi was an excellent man, a man of the people. But he didn't measure up to my father. My father was great. My father translated the Koran. And he did not become president. So I always lived in the shadow of that."

So you have this motivation to do belated justice to your father.

"If I win, I will see it as a certain completion. Because my father really deserved to be president. He was both a reviver of the Hebrew language and an admirer of Arabic. He was both religiously observant and a prime Zionist. Both the one and the other. Both a man of the world and a man of his place."

Fine, fine. You have convinced me that Prof. Yosef Rivlin deserved to be president. But you have yet to convince me that you are worthy.

"I am both a proud Jew and an uncompromising democrat; a pious Jewish-Zionist and a pious democrat."

What do you have that Shimon Peres doesn't?

"I truly love my people. I love my people, whether it does the wrong thing or not."

Shimon Peres, after all, is an icon. He is a world statesman.

"If so, he should be prime minister. A president has to represent the face of Israel, visit schools and - not that there is any comparison - visit prisons, too. To talk to people, listen to people, be a Western Wall to cry on. A president does not have to be the bearer of the word of the international community from Davos, Paris and London."

I repeat, Ruby: you are affable, you are warm and emotional and good-tempered and have a sense of humor. But president?

"Look, I am incapable of being prime minister. Why? Because I am not capable of sending a person to die in battle. That is too terrible a responsibility for me. I do not possess the necessary cruelty for that. But to be president is something else. It is to heal. To bind. To unite. And to unite not out of some kind of self-primping that says unity, unity, unity. Because we have no unity. There is no unity among the Jews. There is no unity among the Israelis - the Arabs and the Jews. So I can unify precisely out of the difference. Why are Arab MKs considering support for me and not for Arafat's partner in the Nobel Peace Prize? Because they come and say that this man does not hide and does not cover up genuine problems. Because what I say is that we were not condemned to live together, we were destined to live together. We have no other choice. Even with all these confrontations, we are obliged to live together."

The last Jabotinskyite

But you are not even part of the consensus. You are an extremist, MK Rivlin. You are one of the last believers in Greater Israel.

"Without any doubt, I am an ideologue."

Do you still support the settlers and the settlements?

"I believe in them as long as they believe in democracy. I believe that every person who settles the Land of Israel brings about a situation in which we will be able to find a solution that will make it possible for all of us to live together. An attempt to work out an agreement in this or that paper and to go back and make concessions and define ourselves as occupiers in our land will not bring peace."

You believe in something almost mystical: both Greater Israel and peace.

"There will be peace only if there will be Greater Israel."

In the eyes of the majority of Israelis, that is a hallucinatory approach. The overwhelming majority of Israelis do not believe in peace and do not believe in Greater Israel and certainly not in a fusion of the two of them.

"If there will be peace, what is the problem with Jews living everywhere? And if there will not be peace, certainly Jews have to live everywhere in order to protect their lives."

Your approach will turn us into a minority of 40 or maybe 20 percent. If that happens, there will be no Jewish state and no democratic state.

"The State of Israel is not a clear thing. We are still in a situation that requires clarification. It is clear to me that Israel will not exist if it is not a Jewish state, and that there will be no State of Israel if it is not a democracy. I am concerned about those in Israel who think we are already like all the nations, and I am concerned about those on the right who think that we can be contemptuous of democratic procedures. But when I was six, if you had told me that in the year 2000 there would be six million Jews here, I would not have believed it. So I believe that we are in an ongoing whirlpool which will go on and on until the Arabs grow tired. Just as [the Revisionist ideologue Ze'ev] Jaobtinsky wrote in 1923 in his article 'The Iron Wall.'"

You still believe in the Iron Wall?

"Of course."

You remain a Jabotinskyite even today?

"Without any reservations."

Are you aware of the fact that you are among the very last of that lost order?

"I am also a realist. I know that the Oslo accord was signed. That Arafat returned. That the Palestinian Authority was established. But I believe in what Jabotinsky wrote exactly as I believed in it when I was a boy in the 1950s and when I was a young man in the 1960s."

Are you still against evacuating settlements?

"I am against evacuating settlements in Judea and Samaria."

Do you support the evacuation of illegal settler outposts?

"Of course. Settlement must not be done by provocation."

If you are president and the government decides to evacuate 50 settlements, what do you do?

"I go to the settlements. I sit with them, cry with them. But I say to my friends: This is a decision by the government of Israel. This is a decision by democracy. We have no choice."

In other words, if there is a majority for it in the Knesset, a massive evacuation of settlements is legal?

"There is no doubt of that."

But when the orange camp - the opponents of the disengagement from Gaza - rebelled against that decision, you allowed them, as Knesset speaker, to impose a siege on the Knesset. You let your worldview influence your policy decisions.

"You can rest assured that if the Arabs had sought permission to hold a large-scale demonstration around the Knesset, I would have allowed it. What I did was to help prevent a fratricidal war. The siege of the Knesset allowed the protesters to vent all the aggressiveness they had stored up and to let off steam. Immediately after the Knesset passed the motion, I went to Gush Katif" - the former settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip - "and told the settlers that the Knesset decision had been taken and that they should prepare for the worst. I told them this amid tears. Real tears. And I do not put on shows in these matters. I am a person who, even if he does not want to cry, cries. I have no problem crying."

Rereading Kafka

We have established that you are a politician and a right-winger. But you are also against the rule of law. You are an adversary of the Supreme Court.

"Have you lost your mind? I am the one who said that there would not be a Constitutional Court, but only the Supreme Court. I am the one who said that we are committed to respect the Supreme Court."

But you are also the one who said there had not been a constitutional revolution, but a constitutional coup. As such, you described the actions of Aharon Barak, the former president of the Supreme Court, as anti- democratic.

"A coup is a danger to democracy. It is inconceivable for the legislature - which represents the sovereign people between elections - to stand before a body that was not elected, which would state that there had been a constitutional revolution which actually never occurred. But I am not the only one who says this. The [former] deputy president, [Moshe] Landau, also said so, as did the court's [former] president, [Meir] Shamgar. They, too, did not accept that there is no need for a constitution in Israel because the Supreme Court is the constitution."

If so, you advocate the move by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann against the current president of the Supreme Court, Justice Dorit Beinisch.

"There are moves that are provocations."

Was Friedmann's appointment a provocation?

"I was not the one who chose Friedmann, but I followed his articles in the press. They were very blunt. What I said was no less trenchant, but more polite."

So Justice Beinisch has nothing to fear from President Rivlin?

"Of course not. Despite the opposition of my Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] friends, some of whom support me, I believe that Israel needs a constitution. We also need a Basic Law on legislation, which will define the boundaries between the branches in order to eliminate this absurd situation in which each branch sets its own boundary."

Ruby Rivlin, in 2001 you were suspected of criminal activity. For three years you were not allowed to be appointed justice minister. Can a person who was not allowed to be justice minister be president?

"We will start from the end. Of this melancholy affair the attorney general said that the Rivlin file would not be the finest hour of the State Prosecutor's Office. That says it all. That means that there was no room for investigating me at all. But the attorney general said this quietly and with restraint about a matter that was unrelated to him or his family. Whereas my family and I - what we went through. For my whole life I have been morally spotless. I was never involved in any impropriety. And as a public figure in Jerusalem, my reputation shone from one end of the country to the other. You know, you can't even buy me a steak, because I am a vegetarian. I eat only falafel.

"And suddenly, when Arik Sharon reaches the zenith - when it is clear that I am about to become justice minister - suddenly I am summoned to an interrogation. And on the way to Petah Tikva [for the police interrogation] I tell my aide, 'Believe me, I have no idea what they want from me.' And the truth is that after three hours of questioning, they already understand that there was nothing. It's all nonsense. When I ask, they tell me I can be a minister. That's fine, except that I cannot be justice minister. Communications minister? Fine, but justice minister? No. And for three years the case is not closed. One day of questioning and three years of not closing. My blood was spilled."

Slowly, now. Let's start from the beginning. Were you or were you not the protege of businessman David Appel?

"That is utterly baseless, utterly baseless."

You were not a soldier in Appel's political-business army?

"That is simply ludicrous. Dudi Appel was born next to me. I have known him from the day he was born. And when I left the Knesset he asked me to manage some project with Doron Rubin, a retired major general. But I was never part of his business establishment. He helped me many times at the political level. We failed together at the political level. He brought me to the camp of David Levy. But to say he was my patron is nonsense. Utter nonsense."

The allegation against you was that Appel held talks with you about developments in the judicial appointments committee, of which you were a member.

"Of course I spoke with Appel. He asked a question, and I simply brushed him aside. I did not give him any information. It's absolutely stupid. I told him not to bother me. I made that clear to the interrogators on the day I was questioned. After three hours they understood that it was all nonsense. That these were things bordering on the absurd and the ridiculous. They said I had arranged a U.S. visa for Appel's son. I told them that I had naturally helped, because Appel's son is like my son. But what do you mean by arranging? Am I the consul? Had they gone mad?"

You are still distraught when you recall that trauma. You are almost crying.

"Ask my family what went on here that Shabbat. My children were here and I simply could not sit with them. I told them that the next day the papers would publish things that had never taken place. I left my house and went to the fields and sat in the fields. I was stunned. I read Kafka and I went back and reread Kafka. But I said - that's literature, fiction. And here people are absolutely allowing themselves to spill a person's blood."

From your point of view, was that a putsch? Was it an attempt by the professional echelon of the state prosecution to prevent an elected official from fulfilling the role he was elected to fulfill democratically?

"There is no doubt about it. Because if there was anything to it, why did they let me be appointed minister of communications? I was not disqualified from membership in the security cabinet. I was not disqualified to be a public personage. I was disqualified only as justice minister. They didn't want me in the Justice Ministry. Maybe precisely because I am too honest. Because I am not a yes-man. And when I tell you this, I still get the chills. I ask how those prosecutors could sit in the State Prosecutor's Office and in the courtroom and hear me being slandered like that. After all, they knew that I had diligently helped the judicial system. On the judicial appointments committee there was nothing on which I and Justice Mishael Cheshin did not see eye to eye. But suddenly, when they saw that someone who is not a yes-man was going to be justice minister, they said he would not get that post. He simply will not get it, and everything goes."

Was it libel?

"I felt it was. And I was especially angry at my brother and friend Aharon Barak, the president of the Supreme Court, and at my brother and friend Dan Meridor. How did they not cry out? Why were they silent? After all, there is no statute of limitations on this. That episode is an abomination. Simply an abomination."

Beyond naughtiness

What is your opinion of the Ramon affair?

"I thought he was stupid."

How so?

"We had friends in the army who were brigade commanders. I was amazed every time I saw them, because life didn' t change for them. Every day they came to work bright and early and their secretary was 19. So they thought they had also remained 19. Haim Ramon also thought he was 19. What he did is untenable."

What is so serious about his action?

"It's clear that a man should not force himself on a girl. But the most serious aspect, I think, is the timing. At that moment, Ramon should have been doing something far more important. He should have been looking after our soldiers. Haim is a wonderful person. And a smart guy. If only he were wiser. But what got me upset was the timing. He really thinks he is 19 all the time. And what he did went beyond naughtiness."

Was it justified to put him on trial?

"Legally, it could have been dealt with by slap on the wrist. My feeling is that if Ramon had not been justice minister, he would not have been brought to trial. Now a new rule has been laid down: a cabinet minister in Israel can stick his tongue by force into a woman's mouth, as long as he is a regular minister and not the minister of justice. Don't laugh. I didn't make that up - the court said so."

And President Katsav? Is the solution of temporary incapacity a reasonable one?

"President Katsav found himself in a very difficult situation. When you face such a tremendous thing, what you must do to prove your innocence is what Haim Ramon did: Resign and demand that you be placed on trial as quickly as possible. If I were in the president's place, heaven forbid, that is what I would have done. Resign and insist on a trial immediately."

Katsav chose a different route. Shouldn't you and the rest of the Knesset have cut short the disgrace and removed him from office?

"Because I am a candidate for president, I chose not to deal with this. I thought the president should have resigned on his own. Today it is already too late. But when the majority of a society thinks there is something to it, very serious damage is done both to the person Moshe Katsav and to the institution of the presidency."

Maybe the most crushing response to the Katsav affair is to elect Colette Avital president.

"Those who think Colette Avital is worthy should vote for her; I will not talk about her, only about myself."

Then let's talk about you. You were the one who appointed Micha Lindenstrauss state comptroller.

"I did not appoint him. The Knesset chose him, and I supported the appointment."

Do you support the appointment even now?

"Every person has his own style. He has inscribed struggle and war on his banner. A struggle and a war in public issues cannot be done without public exposure. The results will tell."

Do you share the opinion of Prime Minister Olmert that Judge Lindenstrauss is in need of psychiatric treatment?

"I do not want to insult the prime minister, but I will tell you a story about the soccer referee Handler. He used to say that when he went to a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist would tell him to send him those who had sent Handler."

I get the impression that between Olmert and Lindenstrauss, you choose Lindenstrauss.

"The Prime Minister's Office is spreading rumors that I am in control of the state comptroller. That is a hallucinatory story. But I can tell you that I have known some of the people involved for a generation. And I say that some of us are allowing ourselves more than our parents. Some of us are taking too much on themselves. In the period of the founding fathers, too, there were phenomena of 'not muzzling an ox when it is threshing.' But the founding fathers knew that we are first of all working for the state. Today that has been somewhat forgotten."

A very critical report by the state comptroller about your term in the Knesset is about to be published.

"Avrum Burg and I opened the Knesset to scrutiny. The criticism against me is due to my decision to give benefits to the management, whose salary was decreased. Everyone who acts makes mistakes. But there was no matter of impropriety here. There is not an iota of an iota of dust."

We are very sensitive to corruption these days. Are you an above-board candidate for the presidency?

"As far as being above board goes, there is no doubt. As to whether I am suited for the post? In the current gallery of names, yes. I have the privilege of being supported by both MK Zvi Hendel and MK Mohammed Barakeh. Also by both MK Shelly Yachimovich and Bibi Netanyahu. I know that it is impossible to rely on an MK's promise. But if the MKs were left alone to vote as they wish today, I would be elected."

You are the choice of the club?


The politicians like the politician in you?

"Yes. I am a politician of a different stripe."

If you are elected, what is the first thing you will do as president of Israel?

"I will go to my father's grave and say, 'Professor, Rivlin is in the Presidential Residence.'"