Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin should be the next president of Israel. First of all, because he’s a nice guy − an argument we should not make light of. It’s no less important than other substantive arguments, notably that he is a liberal and a democrat. Rivlin’s niceness is more than a contrast to the cold-fish image projected by Benjamin Netanyahu, his block-headed intransigence and his extreme positions. The niceness radiated by Rivlin − an inveterate right-winger, yes − is needed to heal Israel’s citizens, who in the waning phase of Netanyahu’s protracted tenure look to be despairing, divided and deeply frustrated.
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Rivlin’s niceness is not irrelevant, because in the years ahead Israel will have to cope not only with foreign relations but primarily with domestic relations. After all, Israel, as the cliché goes, has no foreign policy. And the more it becomes a symbol of hypocrisy, the less its foreign relations need a president.
True, Shimon Peres − of whom it can be said that the presidency was less the acme of his ambitions than he was the acme of its ambitions − also acted as a diplomat and arrived at a series of “understandings” with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas three years ago. Nor is there any doubt that in the theater of Israeli life Peres plays the role of aspirant to peace (and of failure to achieve it).
Yet it’s possible that Rivlin − yes, Rivlin, of all people − who though he lacks international splendor is vastly charming, and who can have himself photographed in a West Bank settlement as naturally as he talks about the rights of the country’s Arab citizens without this sounding like lip service, will be able to do much to defuse internal tensions and achieve domestic harmony. This will be crucial at a time when the Israeli pendulum, swinging increasingly rightward, will strike the wall of reality, or reach the far limit of the ability to discriminate against the other − and then swing the other way.
Let there be no mistake: Rivlin is a politician and as such is thick-skinned. He has sought to become president of Israel for some time, and is working energetically to advance that cause. His friendship with the developer David Appel, who was convicted of bribery, was thoroughly examined and found to be unexceptionable. The life of a politician is strewn with obstacles.
At the same time, his presidential wish is not tainted by hypocrisy. We recall his outcry, “Long live the president of Israel, long live the State of Israel,” after he received 20 fewer votes than Peres in the first round of the 2007 Knesset vote. His demonstrative emotion vests this institution with the heart it needs. Because, in addition to deciding which candidate will form the government after a general election, the president is supposed to tour the country and meet with its citizens. All of them. The nicer he is, the more accessible and jovial, the more open he is and the more he espouses values of equality and brotherhood, the better he does his job.
The hope one can pin on Rivlin rests on his pleasant temperament and a wish for a certain change of style, which will prepare people’s hearts for a basic change in Israeli life. Rivlin can restore the substance to the concept of mamlakhtiyut (defined by Prof. Nir Kedar as a “civilized sovereign polity”). For example, by visiting labor migrants in aid and employment centers. For one’s blood curdles at the sight of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar − perhaps one of the most extreme of the isolationists − patting the shoulder of an asylum seeker as though in a friendly gesture. The gulf between his deeds and this gesture is all but intolerable.
Rivlin is different. His national stance does not morph into an absolute rejection of the other. Indeed, by his vigorous public opposition to the deliberate curtailing of the activity of human rights groups and by aligning himself with these values at crucial junctures, despite the personal price he has paid − such as Netanyahu’s efforts to torpedo his election as president − Rivlin has made himself worthy of the presidency. More than the other candidates.