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Israel's Outgoing President Sought to Unite the People, but Upset Many | A Wrap for Rivlin

A professional parliamentarian and collegial mensch, Israel's outgoing president has always been a rare bird in politics

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In January 2020, after the indictments were filed against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin convened a handful of his closest advisers. The third election campaign (which gave rise to the government of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz) was in full swing. Friends, he told them, I’ve decided. I am not going to give him the mandate to form a government. My conscience doesn’t allow me to, he explained.

Not all the participants were wildly enthusiastic, to say the least. It’s not just the formal issue, that for the first time in the history of the State of Israel that someone under criminal indictment will receive the mandate from the president, said Rivlin. It’s the gravity of the crimes. And no less than that, it’s the way he is behaving. He is accusing law enforcement authorities of the crime of fabricating charges against him, of falsely accusing him. First the police, then the State Prosecutor’s Office, and now the attorney general. They’re all criminals and only he is clean.

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The law enables me to use my judgment, said Rivlin. In accordance with my conscience, and my worldview, and for the sake of future generations, I want to go down in history as someone who did that.

The outcome of the election on March 2 of that year exempted Rivlin from that dilemma. The mandate was first given to Benny Gantz, from whom it went to Netanyahu. Rivlin’s hands, in his view, remained clean. At the end of that nightmarish year, the year of a pandemic and of a quarrelsome, non-functioning government, the Knesset was dispersed. Once again an election was set (for March 23 of this year) and once again, doubt kept the president awake at night. Physically, not metaphorically.

Rivlin, at that time less than six months away from the end of his term in office, wanted to hear the opinion of a close and esteemed friend. He invited over Menahem Mazuz, a Supreme Court justice who had announced his early retirement. They have been friends ever since Mazuz served as attorney general and Rivlin was the Knesset speaker. I’m considering not giving him the mandate, the president revealed to the justice. I am amazed at your uncertainty, said Mazuz. They had a long conversation about the judicial, legal, public and moral aspects of the issue. Despite all the talk, Rivlin did not find salvation from Mazuz over what to do with the hot potato.

The media reported that Rivlin was thinking of resigning, so as not to have to grant the mandate. The idea did cross his mind for a moment, before evaporating. There was no point to such a move, given the identity of his interim replacement, under law, from the moment of his resignation: then-Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s consigliere.

At first, he would be applauded but then he would be humiliated, Rivlin told supporters. He found some opportunity or other and made a speech, in which he noted that the granting of the mandate must entail not only arithmetic but also “moral considerations.” In retrospect, the speech was unnecessary. A short while later, after recommendations for prime minister from the parties in the new, 24th Knesset, Rivlin was left with the same dilemma in all its acuity. The numbers were unambiguous: a large majority for the Netanyahu bloc. Naftali Bennett (Yamina), Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) did not succeed in reaching a coalition agreement.

April 6 was a bad day at the President’s Residence. Rivlin was boiling mad at Bennett and Sa’ar. They had not evinced the kind of leadership he had expected of them. He sent a letter, for which the description “laconic” would be generous, in which he informed Netanyahu that he had decided to grant him the mandate. I don’t want to see that man here, he told his people. He asked the director general of the President’s Residence, Harel Toubi, to pop over to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, a distance of only 600 meters and hand the letter personally to whatever person happened to open the armored door.

Shunning while talking

The relationship between the prime minister and the president whose terms in office overlapped (until last month, to the latter’s delight) was shaky and sour from the very first. The situation degenerated to the point of radioactivity in the past two years. What had been tantamount to a cold war, with days of fighting that came and went, turned into a world war.

In Rivlin’s view, 100 percent of the blame lies on the other side’s shoulders. When he first entered the President’s Residence, he was looking towards peace, even if cold. He encountered a flame of hatred and nasty incitement. Against him and also his wife Nechama when she was alive.

He would come to see me, speak to me with awe and reverence and a minute later he would go and incite against me in a revolting way, Rivlin recently told a group of friends who had come to bid him farewell. When Nechama went into the hospital to undergo a kidney transplant after a year on the waiting list, one of his court journalists reported that strings had been pulled for her. Afterwards he apologized. Every time we checked, the traces of mud led us to the same address. Everyone knows it.

Presidents Biden and Rivlin in the Oval Office this week.Credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Each time he told me it wasn’t him, Rivlin told his friends. I would say to him, Bibi, how come you aren’t ashamed to lie to my face? Have you forgotten with whom you are speaking? It’s me, Ruby. Towards the end, I refused to see him. I told him: You will not come and talk to me in one kind of language and then I will read on all the networks and sites the slanders that are all coming from your house. From his office, they would call to ask for meetings. I refused.

During that whole period, even when it was not good, and splendidly bad, as Alexander Penn’s poem goes, the work and the coordination between the two offices was conducted perfectly well. Military secretary opposite military secretary. Director general opposite director general, diplomatic department opposite the equivalents, media opposite media. The prime minister’s military secretary was a regular visitor at the president’s office. From summer 2015 to summer 2018 that was Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano (now a major general and head of Southern Command, and incidentally the brother of Rivlin’s excellent President’s Residence spokeswoman Naomi Toledano Kandel). And for the three subsequent years, until now, Brig. Gen. Avi Blut.

The magnitude of the rift between the two was made evident when Rivlin boycotted the traditional photograph in the Knesset after the cabinet’s swearing-in session. Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Levin and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut went out to the veranda and discovered that one person was missing. Rivlin was already back home, in sweatpants. Some of his advisers thought he had made a mistake. Go get photographed, you don’t have to speak with him, respect the tradition, they urged. That’s the point, he said to them. Tradition isn’t always something sacred. If I get photographed with him, I am giving him legitimization. I am broadcasting that everything is fine. When nothing is fine. For the first time, a president is giving a mandate to a prime minister who is under indictment, who is working to destroy state institutions. Insofar as it is up to me, he made it clear to them, I don’t want to be seen or photographed beside him, ever. (It happened anyway, at official ceremonies. No contact or exchange of looks has been reported.)

I knew that people would say I’m childish, explained Rivlin to his friends, but that was my way of protesting against the abnormal situation. It’s true that the law allows a prime minister to serve while under indictment, when that same law obligates him to fire a cabinet minister who is indicted. This is only because in 2001, when Yossi Beilin and I changed the election system back from direct election of the prime minister to parliamentary election, we forgot to deal with that provision.

A diplomat despite himself

This past Monday, without a doubt one of his peak moments in the last seven years, Rivlin met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. The reception, as has already been reported, was very warm. They first met in Jerusalem in 1973, after Biden was elected to the Senate. Since then, they have met many times both here and there. It’s no wonder they like each other. Two elderly men, the American age 78 and the Israeli soon to be 82. Both followed a similar path to the height of their careers. Both are professional parliamentarians, collegial mensches; rare birds in politics, liked by all sides of the legislatures in which they served. Both are genial, fair, and men of integrity. “No-bullshit guys,” is how one American reporter described them.

Rivlin received Biden’s official invitation from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who arrived here on May 25 to try to establish the cease-fire with Hamas after Operation Guardian of the Walls. The meeting itself was preceded by a lengthy, secret effort that began upon the new president’s entry into the White House four months earlier.

Over a year ago, Rivlin’s friend Alon Pinkas suggested an idea. Pinkas, formerly the Israeli consul in New York and now a Haaretz writer, maintains an extensive network of relationships with Democratic leaders in Congress. He proposed organizing for Rivlin a speech before a joint session of the two houses of Congress. The president was enthusiastic. Just then, the coronavirus came on the scene and it all became irrelevant. When Biden was elected, Pinkas renewed his efforts to get a-two-for-one (plane ticket): a meeting with Biden – and a speech. The latter didn’t work out, once again because of the coronavirus. The meeting did work out.

Rivlin visiting troops at an Iron Dome battery in May.Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO

Before he took off, the Foreign Ministry held a farewell event for the president in a new meeting hall called “The Nechama and Ruby Rivlin Jerusalem Hall.” In the farewell remarks, Rivlin was called a “diplomat president.” Diplomat? Why? – you might ask. Well, he hadn’t had a plan to that effect. Certainly not after the world-embracing tenure of his predecessor, Shimon Peres. He was looking inwards at Israeli society. He became a diplomat despite himself, in part because of the man who was in the Prime Minister’s Office.

During Rivlin’s first three years in office, from summer 2014 until the beginning of 2017, Barack Obama was in the White House. The loathing between the top men in Washington and in Jerusalem was known but was managed and controlled. And then Netanyahu used the Congress to embarrass the president on the eve of the 2015 election in Israel. The rest of the relationship between the man in the Oval Office and the Israeli prime minister came to an end. The administration found Rivlin to be an alternate interlocutor. Someone who didn’t thwart, leak, plot and slur. Someone to run with, as in the title of David Grossman’s novel.

And not only the Americans. Rivlin made sure to speak (once a month) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. These were not just empty courtesy calls. Among other things, he transmitted security messages – mainly at the request of the Shin Bet security service. Every conversation was reported to the Prime Minister’s Office, according to protocol. As for holding a meeting, Netanyahu imposed a veto. Rivlin regularly hosted the previous Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, every week or two for a Friday morning breakfast on the private second floor of the President’s Residence. Nechama would join them for the meal, and afterwards go off to do her own things. On one of her birthdays, Hamdallah (who resigned two years ago) brought her a gift: a scarf from Palestinian cloth, personally woven. When she lay in the hospital after the kidney transplant and until her death, she would wrap herself in it to get warm.

There was also a regular phone connection between Rivlin and King Abdullah of Jordan, whom Rivlin called ‘Abdullah ath-Thani” (the Second). The calls were always about diplomatic and security issues. The Mossad would use him frequently to transmit messages to leaders whose relations with Netanyahu were sour. The use of Rivlin with Abdullah increased after the affair of the Israeli security guard at the embassy in Amman in 2017. During the four years since then, the relations between the Netanyahu government and the Jordanians only went from bad to worse.

The Mossad would bring to the President’s Residence emissaries from countries with which we do not have diplomatic relations. They would eat meals there with the president. He would transmit what the Mossad had asked him to transmit and the dignitaries would be driven from there in cars with opaque windows to their private planes.

Of course, everything was done with the knowledge and agreement of Netanyahu. Despite the profound loathing between the two men, the code of proper behavior in matters of state was never violated. I will never do anything behind his back, Rivlin would say to his people, anything that would make it possible for him to accuse me of harming national security. He can say that I’m a leftist, that I am subverting him, that I am planning not to give him the mandate, that Gideon Sa’ar and I put together a plot of the century against him. They’re all terrible lies. But I will never give him an excuse to say I have harmed the state.

Tip of the submarine

Rivlin’s role vis-à-vis the Germans in the so-called submarine affair has been told. What could be told. Here’s a brief reminder: In May 2015 the president visited Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Before his departure, the defense minister at the time, Moshe Ya’alon, asked him to express Israel’s concerns, including those of the military, about reports of the Germans’ intention to sell advanced submarines to Egypt.

The German policy was that every such sale was conditioned on approval from Israel. Rivlin met with Merkel, and they toured the Free University of Berlin, where he conveyed to her Israel's concerns.

She looked surprised and said she needed to consult her people. Quick as a wink she got back to him: What are you talking about? You approved it.

Rivlin’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe it. She asked to have the letter of approval brought to her. She showed it to him. Rivlin stepped out onto the balcony and phoned Netanyahu to share his astonishment. What was then said was undoubtedly interesting. Maybe Rivlin will agree to reveal this someday in the future. Maybe not.

Netanyahu and Rivlin at the Israel Prize ceremony in April. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the past, Rivlin was often asked whether he supported the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the submarine affair. He has evaded giving an answer, perhaps surprisingly. Back in the day, Merkel told him that if the slightest bit of high-level government corruption was discovered in the deal, forget about the submarines.

Maybe that’s why the police have never questioned Netanyahu as a possible suspect, and why Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who is security-minded to the marrow, cleared him of all suspicions.
Maybe that’s also why we’ve never heard Rivlin backing the establishing of a commission. He once said that in the balance there’s the Iran situation, which is getting worse, and the protection of our natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean, so the story takes on different proportions.

This isn’t to say Rivlin doesn’t consider the submarine affair a swamp of horrifying corruption, the worst of all the affairs. He believes that what has been reported is the tip of the iceberg.

In conversations recently, Rivlin has reportedly wondered how it made sense or seemed reasonable that two lawyers very close to Netanyahu (David Shimron and Isaac Molho) were handling a mega-sensitive issue like the acquisition of strategic submarines, and the prime minister wasn’t in the know. (The two were cleared of suspicion of criminality in the affair.)

I didn’t know, Netanyahu said to Rivlin when the president confronted him. Rivlin responded: If you didn’t know, that’s very bad, and if you did know, that’s even worse.

Morality and double standards

Rivlin will be remembered, not to his credit, as a controversial president, someone who came with a mandate to unify people and is sometimes perceived as someone who split them. On much of the right wing he’s seen as a traitor who sold his soul to the left and the Arab community. The center and left are crazy about him, even though he hasn’t changed his position a whit: The Land of Israel must remain whole.

Two junctures made him the enemy of the far right and a target of despicable Bibi-ism: the murder of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank in July 2015 and the Elor Azaria affair in March 2016. Rivlin’s shock at the arson killing of the family got him talking in a way that many had trouble stomaching: “I feel pain that members of my people have chosen terror.” The Bibi-ists went wild. Either they didn’t understand or they didn’t want to understand his innocent, pained intention.

From that moment, the presidency became loathsome to parts of the settler messianic right, and of course to the Twitter phalanges that were led from the second floor of the prime minister’s residence. Rivlin’s position in the Azaria affair deepened the hatred toward him in those circles. He was simply disgusted by the right’s glorification of a soldier who shot an already dying terrorist in cold blood and by the warm embracing of him and his family by cabinet members, led by the prime minister.

Rivlin threw into the trash a letter from 77 Knesset members demanding that he pardon Azaria. Some of them phoned, Rivlin said at the time, and told him they believed that he was elected only to release Azaria from prison a moment after he entered. They said Azaria was a hero of Israel, and releasing him was Rivlin’s sacred duty.

He also spoke with Netanyahu on the matter, one of their most difficult conversations – and very few of their conversations weren’t difficult. “How can you ask me to pardon a person like that? Because La Familia” – the hooligans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club – “is pressuring you”? (Incidentally, Rivlin was the chairman of Beitar Jerusalem four decades ago.)

When Netanyahu sought to eliminate the institution of the presidency to prevent Rivlin’s election and mollify Sara Netanyahu, who hates Rivlin, it didn’t stoke a public debate. And Shimon Peres’ presidency had rehabilitated the institution after the disgrace of Moshe Katsav. Even glorified it.

Rivlin tried to craft an action plan for his presidency, as seen in his speech on the “four tribes” – secular people, the religious Zionists, the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis. Unfortunately, the tribalism worsened. But bravely putting a mirror in front of Israeli society is no simple mission, certainly not in that conventional post.

He’s completing his term after shaping the presidency in his image, one that hasn’t resembled – for better or worse – that of any president before him. The respect for Peres’ presidency remains, but the pen of history has indulged in some myth-making with Rivlin.

The differences between Peres’ and Rivlin’s tenures will also enable the next in line, Isaac Herzog, to shape something in his own image. Herzog is a dignified and conscientious leader; he’s not one for conflicts and he’s definitely a professional on the international level. Maybe he’ll be an interesting hybrid of Peres and Rivlin.

When the president wept

Finally, a little story that distills the Rivlin essence more than any other tale. About three weeks after the third general election, in which anti-Netanyahu parties won a majority, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was asked to put on the agenda the election of a new speaker. He refused. A petition to the High Court of Justice was filed. The justices forced his hand.

Even before the ruling, when the media speculated about what Edelstein would do if the move were forced on him, Rivlin – Edelstein’s predecessor – was stricken with worry. He feared that his successor would violate a court ruling.

He phoned the speaker. Edelstein reassured him: What has happened to you, Ruvi? I won’t obey a High Court ruling? No way. Don’t you know me?

A few days went by. It was leaked that even the High Court wouldn’t get Edelstein to change his mind. Rivlin’s anxiety was replaced by real fear. He phoned Natan Sharansky, Edelstein’s close friend, his patron at the start of his political career in the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah party.

Natan, Natan, what’s happening to us? Talk to your friend, please talk to him. The state we’ve built here is the thing most precious to us. If we don’t respect the High Court, we’ll destroy it with our own hands.

The president’s voice broke, says a person who was at his side. He began to weep. Sharansky was in shock. Ruvi, he said, don’t cry, I’ll talk to him. I promise.

On March 25, 2020, the High Court ordered Edelstein to put the election of a new speaker on the Knesset agenda. He refused, on the grounds that his conscience wouldn’t let him, and he resigned immediately. In this he violated a court ruling, regardless of the result.
At the President’s Residence, the tears had already dried up. There remained only red eyes and a grieving, worried heart.

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