Rivlin: Netanyahu's Problem Is That He Doesn't Have a Political Rival

In interview with Haaretz, President Reuven Rivlin opens up about his working relationship with the prime minister, his vision for the country and hate crimes against Palestinians.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Netanyahu and President Rivlin attend a memorial ceremony near Jerusalem, May 7, 2015.
Netanyahu and President Rivlin attend a memorial ceremony near Jerusalem, May 7, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The arson attack that killed 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh in the West Bank last Friday shocked President Reuven Rivlin, but it hardly surprised him. For years, he has been monitoring closely the escalating number of racist and physical attacks on innocent Palestinians, and he has tried to convince settlers to renounce such actions.

“I know [the settlers] from the days when I would travel around Samaria,” Rivlin told Haaretz in an interview this week, “and would say to them we don’t need to build the land [of Israel] out of revenge or ‘price tag’ attacks – we are building the country because of our love for Israel, and because the entire world understands the moral side of the existence of the State of Israel.

“To throw a firebomb into a house where people might be is an atrocious act, there are no other words for it. Firstly, this horror damages the morality of our desire to settle in the Land of Israel,” said Rivlin.

The president’s strong, unambiguous words about the attack triggered dozens of death threats against him this week, mostly on social media sites. “On a personal level, I’m not someone who is caught up in any such fears. I don’t suffer from paranoia,” he said about the threats. “This atmosphere is mostly from people who are not willing to hear anything but what they want to hear.”

Rivlin rejects out of hand claims heard from right-wingers this week that he was inciting against the settlers. “First, there are acts of terror and then they say we’re ‘inciting against the right and settlers.’ No, no. We are not inciting against the settlers, but speaking out against terror ... We need, as a country, as a people and as moral [people], to prevent every possibility of terror. Jewish terrorism is a danger to the State of Israel, just as Arab terrorism is,” he said.

Rivlin is familiar with the roots of this hatred. He ran Beitar Jerusalem in the 1970s, and back then witnessed the manifestations of racism and violence by a handful of the soccer club’s fans. “When I was at Beitar Jerusalem we said, ‘It is a handful’ – but now they have taken over Beitar. Unfortunately, I am talking about Beitar as a microcosm. The Beitar menorah I so admired is not exactly the menorah that’s lit on Beitar’s fields today.”

The world and us

Our interview takes place on the first anniversary of Rivlin’s taking office. He was sworn in at the end of July 2014, at the height of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Since then, he has become one of the most dominant and influential figures in Israeli public discourse. Our entire conversation was conducted under the cloud of the confrontation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, following the nuclear agreement between the world powers and Iran. Netanyahu’s efforts to convince the members of Congress to reject the Iranian deal – despite Obama’s fierce support – worries Rivlin.

“It’s quite possible that Netanyahu believes he can win in America,” said Rivlin, before adding a little dig. “I am reminded of the story in which, after Levi Eshkol ran into serious economic problems in Israel, his advisers proposed that he declare war on America. ‘We will lose in a few days and then the Americans will take care of everything for us,’ his advisers told him. And Eshkol asked them, ‘But kinderlach [children], what happens if we defeat America?’”

Rivlin fears that Israel may be placing its relationship with the United States and European nations at a dangerous new low. “We also need the world – despite the fact that, many times, we do not agree with them. That’s why we need to understand that the world doesn’t always see everything the way we do.”

Do you think Netanyahu understands this?

“Certainly, that’s why I tell him – and I tell him once again – that battles, even just ones, that ultimately come at the expense of the State of Israel are things we need to be very careful about, and to show restraint on a personal level. I’m sure there’s no one more expert on the United States than the prime minister. But people who are not experts on America also know we must preserve the relationship with America, even if we disagree.”

In other words, we could win the battle and lose the war?

“Since I have never been a commentator, I only say these things – you can interpret them as you wish. Especially since, today, Netanyahu is the leader of Israel’s political system with no replacement [in sight]. I told him many times, ‘One of your tragedies is that you don’t have a rival, since if you had a [potential] replacement, you would be a thousand times better.’”

Rivlin says he repeatedly emphasizes to Netanyahu the need for world support in general, and that of the United States in particular: “I say that to Netanyahu with the understanding of how hard it is for us to bear the American attitude to our problems today.”

According to Rivlin, we must understand there are “three principles of Israel’s foreign policy: First, the relationship with the United States; second, the relationship with the United States; and the third principle – the relationship with the United States. We are isolated from the United States and all of Europe on the Iranian issue. They see the atom, and we see Iran as a terrorist state.”

Relations between Rivlin and Netanyahu have taken a downturn in recent years. Netanyahu actively worked to prevent Rivlin’s election as president, even trying to recruit other candidates to run against him. The height of their fight came when Netanyahu’s bureau considered postponing the presidential election for a year, or to extend Shimon Peres’ term – until Netanyahu could find an alternative candidate to run against Rivlin.

Rivlin made clear this week that his relationship with the prime minister is businesslike and proper. They meet at least once a month and Netanyahu’s bureau takes care to send Rivlin intelligence updates every day. It’s important for Rivlin to emphasize that his criticism on the Iranian issue is not personal. “All the personal issues between us are not important,” he says.

“I’m sure he is acting out of concern for the long-term future of Israel,” adds Rivlin. “But sometimes, when this concern is excessive, we can reach results that can be interpreted by the public as something that doesn’t advance our interests. That is everything – that’s the main disagreement.”

Vision for a confederation

When he was elected, Rivlin declared he didn’t intend to step into the shoes of his predecessor, Peres. The latter dedicated a large part of his term to public relations tours to world leaders. Rivlin decided he would focus on Israeli society, in an attempt to bring people and communities closer together – especially Israel’s Arabs and Jews.

A short time after taking office, Rivlin delivered a speech that set the tone for his term when he spoke at a ceremony marking the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasem. He also paid an official visit to the Jewish community in Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

“I know that Jewish and Arab citizens live in Israel. Once, that was one of the main differences among the people of Israel. But today, the differences are so numerous that this is only one problem among many. In order to bring about a situation in which Arabs and Jews can live together, we’ll need to convince our neighbors, who are not Israelis, that even if it’s not so good to live near the Jews, it’s not such a tragedy either,” says Rivlin.

Do you plan to make the Palestinians citizens?

“I believe the people of Israel have returned to their land. Once, Arik Sharon asked me why we need Gaza. I told him, ‘Arik, when we have five children and one of them is not okay, he is not our child? We need to take care of him. To make sure he will live well too.’”

Rivlin emphasizes that his ideological worldview is the “Jabotinskyite view. In his seminal essay ‘The Iron Wall,’ [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky said that when the people of Israel return to their land, the Arabs will not be willing to accept us – for the reasons that are clear to us today, too. Therefore, we will need to build an iron wall around us. The nature of an iron wall is that if you try to destroy it, you only exhaust yourself. When we see that the Arabs around us have truly exhausted themselves, then we will open the doors,” says Rivlin.

And what happens until then?

“First of all, the Oslo Accords are a fact. I am not formulating policy. We will need to find a solution on how we live together – maybe a confederation. There will not be two countries. Nonetheless, in a confederation there is one army,” says Rivlin.

“We will have to create a situation in which two peoples live in the Land of Israel, while they arrange the life inside it with open and absolute borders, but with the understanding that the ability to defend the country is in the hands of one organization only,” he says.

How do you do that?

“Peace will only be with open borders, and open borders will only be if we can build trust. For as long as this is not the situation, we must make certain we have a constitution according to which 120 Knesset members cannot change the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state – and at the same time, 120 MKs cannot change the democratic character of Israel.”

Since taking office, Rivlin has decided to strengthen the link between the president and the public. He says that every request from a citizen is answered. “I often call people, because I’m afraid that by the time they receive the letter, it will no longer be a burning [issue] for them,” he says.

As for his predecessor’s predilection to travel the world more than he does, Rivlin says, “President Peres was wanted everywhere in the world.” Rivlin says he is much less in demand around the world. “Every president has their own style. In no way do I disparage President Peres’ style,” he adds.

When Peres visited Rivlin in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem last summer, Peres was surprised to see two portraits of Jabotinsky on the walls of the president’s office. “Peres looked at the pictures and told me, ‘I see Jabotinsky, but I don’t understand why you didn’t leave the picture of Ben-Gurion.’ I told him, ‘Peres, Ben-Gurion was here on the wall for 67 years. Let Jabotinsky have a year.”

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