The President Who Will Pray in Hebron and Commemorate Kafr Qasim

Meet Israel's 10th president: a scion of a respected Jerusalem family, Reuven Rivlin is not afraid to get involved in controversial issues at the heart of Israel's identity.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Rivlin in his native Jerusalem in 2010.
Rivlin in his native Jerusalem in 2010.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Reuven Rivlin was elected president to a great extent against all odds. Over the past year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, did their best to derail his election campaign. Rivlin was never chosen as the official Likud or coalition candidate. Netanyahu tried as recently as two weeks ago to recruit other candidates to defeat him.

Netanyahu and his wife haven’t forgotten a long list of confrontations with Rivlin. Throughout Rivlin’s term as Knesset speaker, Netanyahu felt that Rivlin was scorning and humiliating him. He also heard Rivlin’s hurtful comment about his wife. At one point, Netanyahu was forced to twist in front of the microphone while being grilled in the Knesset plenum, with Rivlin as speaker, about the quality of the agreement he signed with MK Shaul Mofaz to bring his Kadima party into the previous coalition. Netanyahu was convinced that as president, Rivlin would not appoint him to assemble the next coalition.

The governing coalition as a whole had a hard time digesting Rivlin’s machinations. Time after time, he undermined anti-democratic legislation and bills to establish investigative commissions to muzzle human rights organizations.

Rivlin is expected to be a very active and opinionated president, who is not afraid to get involved in controversial issues. He is expected to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on the one hand and participate in the ceremony commemorating the 1956 Kafr Qasim massacre of Israeli Arabs by Israeli soldiers on the other. He is likely to devote his speeches to the settlement enterprise, but to look after the welfare of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents.

The 10th president of Israel was born in 1939 in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. He grew up in a home that supported the right-wing Beitar Movement, a scion of the respected Rivlin family. His father, Middle East professor Yosef Yoel Rivlin, was a candidate to be the third president of Israel.

The elder Rivlin translated the Koran and instilled a love of Hebrew in his son. It is written on Rivlin’s Facebook page that his mother, Rahel Rivlin, called him Rubele, a nicknamed that evolved into “Rubi,” which has followed him his whole life.

Rivlin has been a vegetarian by conscience for nearly 30 years and is a loyal fan of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.

Rivlin, married to Nehama and father to four children, lives in the capital’s Yafeh Nof neighborhood in an old apartment building. His neighbor in the building is former Minister Benny Begin.

Rivlin went to high school in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood and served as an intelligence officer, reaching the rank of major. He was a member of El Al airline’s board of directors and as chairman of the Safety and Hygiene Institute. Later, he served as director of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team and was its legal adviser.

Rivlin served on the Jerusalem City Council for five years and as chairman of the capital’s branch of the now-defunct Revisionist Herut party. For years, he was mentioned time after time as a possible candidate for mayor of Jerusalem. He was first elected to the Knesset in 1988 and first became Knesset speaker in 2004. Rivlin declared his candidacy for president in 2007 to replace Moshe Katsav. He ran against Shimon Peres, came in second and withdrew his candidacy before the runoff vote. He was elected to a second term as Knesset speaker in 2009.

His wife, Nehama, posted on Facebook on Monday morning that she had not married a president, and whatever will be, will be. “You will always be a friend and loved,” she wrote. “We met many years ago, I who came to Jerusalem from a Moshav to learn biology, and you — a scion of the Old Yishuv — a perfect mix of old and new. I love seeing you enjoy good soccer, good music or an outlandish Western, when you enjoy home-cooked food and Israeli beer, or when you get excited while reading a book and tell me: ‘Nehama, you have to hear this.’”

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