Israel’s election of a new state president to succeed Shimon Peres ends an embarrassing moment in the country’s political history, one that was surprisingly ugly even by the messy standards of Israeli politics. On the other hand, the Knesset’s choice of the respected Likud veteran, Reuven Rivlin, opens a whole new chapter that could prove just as troublesome if not more so.
Even though the job has few powers, the race turned into a free-for-all stained by mud-slinging and dirty tricks. Seven candidates mounted serious campaigns. Two of the strongest were forced to withdraw in the final weeks because of sudden, mysteriously unearthed criminal allegations. Backroom dealmaking was rife up to the last minute.
Israel’s presidency, modeled after the British monarchy, is supposed to provide a unifying figurehead who embodies the best of the nation. Peres was that in spades. The last of the founding generation, he’s been the very model of an elder statesman. The end of his seven-year term inspired a rush of wannabes who confused elder statesman with washed-up political hack.
Still, somehow, the race produced a worthy winner, a sort of village elder known for his integrity, warmth and broad, cross-party popularity. In two terms as Knesset speaker, “Rubi” Rivlin steered the raucous body with rare probity, firmly defending minority rights, unpopular views and the rule of law. He’s one of the last of the old Jabotinskyite purists whose principled commitment to democracy and civil rights is as unbending as his commitment to the Greater Land of Israel.
On the other hand, his commitment to the Greater Land of Israel is indeed unbending. In fact, what he wants is what many Palestinian hardliners say they want, at least the non-Islamist ones: combining Israel and the territories into a single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean with equal rights for all. Hatikvah would remain the national anthem for as long as Jews are a majority. After that, who knows?
The fact is, Rivlin becoming president won’t make that happen. It’s still distinctly a minority view among Israelis. Even in the Likud-led Knesset close to two-thirds favor separation into two states. Rivlin will have almost no power to bring his vision closer.
True, but he can nudge it forward in certain ways. Symbolically, he can use the presidency to advance annexation in the same way Peres used it to advance the two-state vision: by the statements he makes, the people he invites in, the ceremonial events he stages.