Rivlin's Crucial Mission: The Preservation of Israeli Democracy

Rivlin has been advocating for partnership between Jewish and Arab citizens for years. Now he will have to pour content into his previous statements.

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Rivlin and Sheetrit in the Knesset plenum. June 10, 2014.
Rivlin and Sheetrit in the Knesset plenum. June 10, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

Reuven Rivlin, who was elected the 10th president of the State of Israel on Tuesday, is to be congratulated. Rivlin, who has served in various parliamentary capacities since 1988, including communications minister and, most prominently, as Knesset speaker, is a worthy choice for the position.

While Rivlin does not have the prestige and international status of outgoing President Shimon Peres and his influence in that sphere will be limited, he has an even more important task: to save Israeli democracy from the forces that are threatening to crush it. He, and the institution of the presidency together with him, will be required to serve as a symbolic and actual buffer against nationalism, racism and the persecution of minorities.

Rivlin has been advocating for partnership between Jewish and Arab citizens for years. Now he will have to pour content into the statements he made as Knesset speaker, such as these from 2009: “On the way to building real partnership we must overcome the inequality in opportunity and in resources from which the Arab sector suffers ... We must direct greater budgets to the Arab sector until they reach parity with the Jewish communities ... We must use affirmative action in higher education and also in access to jobs in the public sector ... Establishing true partnership between Jews and Arabs in Israel is an existential necessity.”

Rivlin will have to express, in a clear voice, his reservations toward the wave of nationalism and anti-democratic feeling that typify the current Knesset. As the president of “all segments of the population,” he will have an obligation to criticize publicly legislation that discriminates against minorities, whose purpose is to silence criticism of government policy and that seeks to make human-rights groups disappear.

Rivlin belongs to Likud’s right wing. He opposed the disengagement from Gaza and supported the settlers of Hebron. In a 2007 interview with Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, he said he “believe[d] in Jabotinsky’s statements ... There will be peace only if there were Greater Israel.” Yet in the same interview, he said, “I am also a realist. I know that the Olso Accords have been signed ... that the Palestinian Authority came into existence.” On the question of what he would do as president if the government decided to evacuate 50 settlements, he said, “I would go to the settlements. I would sit with them, weep with them. But I would tell my friends: ‘This is a decision of the Israeli government. This is a decision of democracy. We have no choice.’”

Rivlin ended his victory speech on Tuesday by saying, “Long live Israeli democracy. Long live the State of Israel.” Indeed, this basic connection – between Israel’s existence as a democratic country in the full sense of the term and its continued existence – will be his most important task as president.