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Why Rivlin Enrages the Right

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Reuven Rivlin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk following a ceremony at the President's residence in Jerusalem onApril 20, 2015
Reuven Rivlin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk following a ceremony at the President's residence in Jerusalem onApril 20, 2015 Credit: Abir Sultan/AP

Somewhat alarmed, Reuven Rivlin hastened to “clarify” his statement in praise of demonstrations. It turns out Rivlin isn’t against something or someone, he’s just in favor of democracy, and of public squares as its architectural expression. Not only that, but he is actually the offended party in this whole story.

“It can only be regretted that at this delicate time my words were taken out of context to add fuel to the fire,” the president complained.

It’s a pity that Rivlin – a real mensch and outstanding president – is being sanctimonious and insincere. The sanctimony and insincerity are based on the implicit assumption that the listening public is stupid. President Rivlin bracketed the Petah Tikva-Rothschild demonstrations, which are the clearest symbol of the struggle against Netanyahu, with the 2011 social protests (another expression of no confidence in Netanyahu, albeit more reserved), and the relatively consensus-based #MeToo campaign. Rivlin’s statement was purely political. To be more precise, it was a return kick after the one Netanyahu aimed his way at the Hanukkah rally the prime minister held for himself.

Rivlin constitutes a genuine, vital opposition to Netanyahu, as Ehud Barak does and as Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay do not. The two most accurate measures of one’s relevance as an oppositional force are the expressions of hatred the right wing hurls at them and the extent to which Netanyahu pays them attention.

The tweeter Ehud Barak is driving right wingers out of their minds and dragging Netanyahu into reacting to him (“an old man with a new beard”). Rivlin irked Bibi’s base into photoshopping him in a kaffiyeh, while Netanyahu dedicated a statement to him at that rally, portraying him as a criminal suspect while gleefully shushing (“show a little respect”) the whistles of contempt when the president’s name was mentioned.

In this context the author and pundit Irit Linur’s response to the president’s words on Army Radio is interesting. Linur lost it on the air, shouting, “You were always the biggest failure as a politician and now, as president, as an Israeli symbol, you call on Israel’s citizens to take to the streets? For what!? For what!? Tell me, little upstart, who do you think you are?”

If you listen to this attentively, you’ll find that the content is not as bad as the tone. “Upstart” isn’t the worst thing you can say about a person, nor, evidently, is it the ugliest thing Linur has called people in her radio career. What stands out is the rampant fury. The incendiary rage. The sputtering wrath. Rivlin drives her up the wall. As a loyalist of Netanyahu she just identifies the political threat Rivlin poses, and mobilizes.

While the right wing’s loathing of Barak is somehow understandable – an erect, fearless left-wing “macho” who both killed Arabs and was willing to give them Jerusalem – the question remains, what is their problem with public figures like Rivlin? Rivlin, the Beitar Jerusalem fan; Rivlin, whose ideology draws the Jewish state’s borders somewhere around Mount Ararat (east of Turkey); Rivlin, whose patriotic pathos burns like a torch on Mount Herzl (“long live the State of Israel!”).

The Rivlin affair proves yet again that the fault line in Israel doesn’t run along ideology, or borders, or the status of the territories, or even the treatment of Arabs, who are trapped in the danger zone. The fault line is cultural, running between the establishment and those attacking it. To a large extent the divide is ethnic, even if all we’re seeing at the front for now is privileged Ashkenazim fighting among themselves. (This will change in the days after Netanyahu.)

Linur loves Bibi-ism because it is anti-politically correct, because despite 20 years of being in power it is anti-establishment, because it is anti-elite and on the side of the common people, of whom Netanyahu – the rich, well-educated Ashkenazi – has managed to brand himself the authentic champion.

Rivlin is one of the splendid representatives of the old Israeli establishment. When you look at reality through this aperture, Beitar glory is identical to Mapai privilege. They have one thing in common now, as Linur herself detected: Both are losing to Bibi at the ballot box.

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