How Israel Fell for Ruby Rivlin, the Philosopher Clown

He started as the guy who made bad jokes, but Reuven Rivlin became a forceful speaker of the Knesset and a leading candidate for president.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

You know the romantic comedies where the lovable loser finally stops goofing around and gets serious to win the girl’s heart? It’s hard not to root for that guy. And if you’re Israeli, you’ve probably been similarly charmed by the political career of former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin.

This hasn't been his month. The well-traveled, widely beloved speaker was publicly fired and sent to the Knesset benches as an ordinary MK following clashes with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a humbling comedown for the man who'd been touted as the next president of Israel, after Shimon Peres.

And he had come so far. With his appointment as Knesset speaker three years ago, on March 30, 2009, Rivlin proved himself to be a remarkable, honorable and courageous politician. For the greater good, he would unhesitatingly cross swords with his colleagues in Likud. He became a voice of reason in the crazy world of Israeli politics. He was a true advocate of democracy in a country that seems to value it less and less.

His achievement is even more impressive given that he wasn’t really taken that seriously before 2009. His jokes, which are bad and frequent, didn’t help.

But Rivlin is also the one who, in 2010, uttered this brilliant analysis: "Israel's leadership is like a dog. It doesn't lead the people, it's led by them. Like a dog waits to see where his master goes, our leaders wait for public opinion polls."

Hard-right jester for democracy

In fairness, Rivlin's political life has always been characterized by the contrast between the jester and the philosopher in him. He is an advocate of democracy - with a clear right-wing (some would say, extreme right-wing) agenda. And he is also a close personal friend of Arab MK and former Arafat consigliore Ahmed Tibi, his deputy as speaker of the Knesset.

"I can’t be prime minister," he told Haaretz in 2009. "And I don’t want to be prime minister, because I can't send people to die, and that’s a quality a prime minister should have."

Born in Jerusalem to Middle Eastern Studies scholar Yossef Yoel Rivlin, Reuven Rivlin was a descendant of the famed Rivlin family, which immigrated to Israel in the early 19th century. Raised in a revisionist Zionist household, he was active in politics from an early age, combining political awareness with a deep love of soccer, especially his beloved team Beitar Jerusalem, which is famously associated with Israel’s political right.

After a few years on the local Jerusalem scene (legal counsel for Beitar Jerusalem, city council member) - Rivlin stepped onto the national stage. In 1988, he was elected to Knesset but didn't make much of a mark. He didn't make the ticket again until 1996.

In those days, he was prone to making jokes on national television and saying things considered outrageous by the more straight-laced standards of the time. When Ariel Sharon tapped him to be minister of communications in 2001 (he was actually named minister of justice but had to let that dream job go due to a police investigation against him that went nowhere) pundits reacted with shock. In 2001, he joined the elite club that includes Bill Gates and former Canadian PM Jean Chretien when a young female activist threw a pie in his face (to protest the privatization of national phone company Bezeq).

The role of a lifetime

All this was just the prelude to the role he was meant to play: speaker of the Knesset. But that doesn't mean his road was smooth.

Loving the Knesset, he'd always wanted the job. He was first elected to the position in 2003 – after asking Sharon to help him get it rather than give him a ministry – and served until 2006.

His first term did not go well. Perhaps still smarting from his unjust banishment from the Justice Ministry, he took on the justice system in a very public and bitter fight.

The 16th Knesset, which he chaired, was also stained by numerous scandals involving improper conduct by MKs, including a double-voting scandal, making it the worst-performing Knesset ever in public opinion polls.

Rivlin got his second chance to serve as speaker in 2009 but not before trying for the presidency. In 2007 – after Moshe Katsav relinquished the office in the face of rape and sexual misconduct charges, which later landed him in jail – Rivlin announced his candidacy.

Ultimately, he lost in the first round of the Knesset vote to Kadima's candidate, Shimon Peres, and conceded with tears in his eyes, saying: "Long live the president, long live the State of Israel."

He started his second term a more serious, mature politician, this time declaring he would not tolerate any improper conduct from MKs. He was a man on a mission, driven to restore the Knesset's public image, tarnished by years of scandals and outbursts, and to protect its independence after previous PMs had treated it as no more than a rubber stamp.

"We were not elected to be extras, but to take an active, central part in the act of democracy," he said in his inaugural address.

It was not easy. He had to deal with a disenfranchised, shameless Knesset, where lobbyists were kings and democracy faced real peril. It was also marked by escalating outbursts by right-wing MKs – many of them members of his own party – denouncing human rights and freedom of expression.

Twenty years ago, when he and his friend Benny Begin (late PM Menachem Begin's son) started out as junior MKs, they were the most extreme right anyone could imagine. Now, they were darlings of the left and singled out by the right as covert leftists.

Proposing an ethical code for MKs, Rivlin pushed for penalties against errant Knesset members. He started relentlessly pursuing the creation of a constitution for Israel.

When last year an expose by television news show "Fact" ("Uvda") aired clips of lobbyists boasting about their clout in drafting and passing laws, Rivlin immediately banished the lot from Knesset premises - permanently.

"The people have said the Knesset is irrelevant," he said when the social justice protests erupted in 2011. "Every MK has to be even more serious in his work." In 2012, he won Knight of Quality Government Award from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

A clash with the king

But all the respect he gained also led to trouble. His newfound independence created tensions with Netanyahu. Things got worse after his "Israel's leadership is like a dog" crack in 2010, but the true peak was in 2012, when Rivlin banned the government from proposing legislation due to the absence of most of its members from the Knesset debates.

In 2012, he even went after Netanyahu's national unity government, saying narrowing the opposition endangered democracy in Israel.

The Netanyahu-Rivlin relationship reached its nadir this month with Rivlin’s ouster as speaker of the Knesset.

"I know I am being impeached. I may be an idiot, but I am not a jackass," he said, in his usual sarcastic tone, following reports that Netanyahu wished to meet with him – which he refused.

At the vote on Yoel Edelstein’s appointment as his replacement, Rivlin was the only member of Likud who did not raise his hand in support. Two days later, he took the provocative step of showing up at an emergency conference organized by the opposition against the government's plan to raise the electoral threshold for winning a Knesset seat.

Rivlin's loss was not taken lightly by anyone, and Netanyahu was attacked left and right. Even Peres said it was wrong to replace him. "I got to hear my eulogies while still alive," Rivlin quipped in response to all the love and support he was receiving.

Now that he's just an ordinary MK, Rivlin finds himself at a professional crossroad. Given the sourness of his relations with Netanyahu, he seems less likely to be appointed to replace Peres as president. Some suggest he might decide to run for mayor of Jerusalem, thereby unifying two of his great loves.

Whatever the future holds for him, it is remarkable, and somewhat inspiring, to consider the way Rivlin matured from a wannabe comedian who didn’t seem to take his job seriously into one of the most respected and beloved politicians in Israel. Perhaps today's clowns in Knesset, like Miri Regev and Danny Danon, will become respectable one day too. Probably not, though.

Reuven Rivlin. Jerusalem apartment worth some 3 million shekels.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Ahmed TibiCredit: Michal Fattal

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