Israel's President Merits the Criticism Being Thrown at Him

Reuven Rivlin should not have attended Haaretz's New York confab, which smacked of a government-in-exile arrayed against Israel's legitimate government.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, wish they could stay in the U.S. a little longer.
President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, wish they could stay in the U.S. a little longer.Credit: Haaretz
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

The reverberations from Haaretz' New York roadshow continued unabated over the weekend, with over-the-top accusations of a fascist plot to stifle our president Reuven Rivlin (complete with a cartoon from Haaretz's Amos Biderman showing the members of the nationalist NGO Im Tirzu making fascist salutes on their way to attack the presidential mansion).

I myself supported Rivlin's presidential candidacy because he was the best candidate running. He demonstrated integrity when he rejected Ariel Sharon's offer of political advancement in return for supporting the harebrained Gaza expulsion. I also criticized Netanyahu for failing to give Rivlin his full backing (it was former Likud minister Gideon Saar who did the heavy lifting). This and Rivlin's current post does not, however, ensure blind deference. While some of the criticism leveled at Rivlin is unjustified, he did cross the line by certain of his actions.

We start with the constitutional reality that in the Israeli system the president occupies a ceremonial role, meaning that he cannot serve as a rallying point of opposition to a democratically-elected government. Yes, he must on the one hand act as a figure who can unite the country behind him - and this means he must, on occasion, reach out to those Israelis who voted for the opposition parties and find themselves chafing under a government that commands a majority. His job is to show that their feelings are not ignored.

I remind people on my side of the spectrum that we were quite happy when a very dovish President Ezer Weizmann (whose relationship with Yitzhak Rabin was analogous to Rivlin's relationship with Netanyahu) referred to the Oslo II agreement as an agreement that achieved a bare Knesset majority on the grill of a Mitsubishi. This was a reference to the Rabin government's inducing members of the Tzomet Party to form a breakaway faction that would enjoy ministerial perks including a government car. Weizmann's remarks were a welcome gesture to that large segment of Israeli public opinion that felt that its voice was being unheard when a disastrous agreement was being steamrolled through by questionable tactics.

I also agree with the substance of Rivlin's position that Israel cannot adopt "benign neglect" towards the Arab minority on issues such as infrastructure. It is precisely because, like myself, Rivlin supports total or sizable annexation of Judea and Samaria leaving the Arabs in situ that this is a necessity. This is also a corollary of the view that Israel cannot outsource security and law enforcement to others and treat Arab communities as no-go zones al la Belgium's Mollenbeek.

That said I believe that a serving Israeli president should not write an op-ed on the subject for a paper of record such as the Washington Post without clearing it first with the prime minister's office. An Israeli president is not a player in foreign policy or information policy unless he receives instructions to act in that capacity by the elected government.

Nor is it the job of a president to float ideas such as a confederation between Israel and Palestine. The term confederation is an extremely slippery slope, because a confederacy - as opposed to a federal system - means that no central government or shared functions exist except when agreed upon by members of the confederacy. It means, as under the Articles of Confederacy in American History, that the members can impose tariffs on each other, commission naval vessels etc. Effectively it means a two-state solution but creates the dangerous illusion that some sort of residual Israeli control continues.

I also wasn't happy about Rivlin's taking part in Obama's Hanukah party which was essentially a charade designed to show that the Obama administration distinguished between good Israelis like Rivlin, and bad ones like Netanyahu. As opposed to Haaretz's Yossi Verter, I do not believe that the prime ministerial anger with Rivlin was due to Rivlin's "success" in bonding with Obama, something that Netanyahu had failed at, but because he had been tricked into playing a supporting role in Obama's divide and rule strategy. If Netanyahu would completely cave to Obama, the American president could have lit candles in the White House on each night of Hanukah.

I have no qualms about Rivlin addressing an Haaretz conference in Israel, just as it is presidential practice to attend the opening of political party conventions including parties such as the Arab Democratic Front for Equality (formerly the Israeli Communist Party). However the New York confab smacked of a government-in-exile arrayed against Israel's legitimate government. This was the major problem – not the flag incident, or the inclusion of a Breaking the Silence representative on one of the panels. Call me old fashioned, but the attempt to blur distinctions between Israel and abroad is wrong. Peter Beinart may want to insinuate that opposition to Donald Trump is the same as opposition to Netanyahu. But Israel is Israel and America is America.

There was nothing in that confab that could not have been done in Tel Aviv or even Umm Al-Fahm. Its staging abroad constituted a blatant appeal to American intervention to save Israel from itself. It was therefore appropriate that the conference received warm greetings from Obama – a president who has weakened American democracy by flouting constitutional restraints. Rivlin showed severe lack of judgment in attending this conference and the criticism he absorbed was indeed merited.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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