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.
He’ll also have two small but important concrete powers. First, if there’s a close election, the president decides who gets the first crack at assembling a coalition. That’s been critical in the past. Second, if settler violence turns serious, as it’s done before and many fear it’s about to do again, he has the power to pardon. That gives settler militants a psychological edge if and when the struggle over the future of the territories heats up. Their Bayit Yehudi-Jewish Home party was his strongest parliamentary support base.
In the end, though, what’s important about Rivlin’s presidency is what it symbolizes in the Israeli zeitgeist. The moderate majority that supports a compromise peace with the Palestinians is dispirited, divided and floundering. After a two-decade emotional roller-coaster — Oslo peace agreement, Rabin assassination, Camp David peace summit, Second Intifada, Gaza disengagement, Hamas rockets, Olmert-Abbas negotiations, Olmert indictments — the process that was supposed to bring peace is dead in the water.
The right-wing minority, which never believed in it, is feeling cautiously triumphant. It’s been vindicated. And after five years of diplomatic stalemate under Benjamin Netanyahu, it feels it’s won the argument, too. The middle and much of the left have conceded that Palestinians and Israelis are too far apart to make peace, that the Palestinians want more than Israel can ever give.
Not that the right has turned its vindication into electoral success. The parties on the right have declined steadily in the past decade. They now hold a grand total of 42 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, or 35%. The center and left hold 48 seats, or 40%. The remaining 25% are divided between the non-Zionist blocs of Arabs and Haredim.
On the other hand, neither has the center-left turned its electoral success into vindication. Instead of governing, it’s broken into a flock of small and middle-sized parties with nearly identical platforms, divided by minuscule tactical differences and huge egos. Half of them sit in a governing coalition with the right, while the other half sit in opposition and attack the first half.
Thus the right governs with a majority of the governing coalition but a minority of the electorate and the Knesset. It can prevent what it opposes but it can’t implement what it favors. Not openly, anyway.
There’s a sort of political vacuum in Israel. The broad middle is in a mood of ennui, a combination of complacency, satisfaction and despair. The right’s mood combines smugness and resentment: It’s won the argument but gets no credit. It gets to elect a right-wing prime minister who abandons the right’s principles once in office and a right-wing president who sticks to his principles but can’t do anything about them.
In any event, there’s a widespread sense, at least among the public, that nothing is so urgent. After all, Israel has had seven years virtually without terrorism — enforced, ironically, by Palestinian security forces acting in expectation of independence, in cooperation with an Israeli security command that believes that without progress the cooperation will collapse and terror will return.
What’s more, Israelis are enjoying a level of acceptance and access in the global community that they’ve never known before, thanks to Israel’s business success, combined with the West’s new acquaintance with terrorism. And yet, that too is fragile. Israelis may have learned that there’s no Israeli-Palestinian meeting point, but their Western partners aren’t buying it. Forty-seven years of explaining to the West that they’re entitled to hold the territories — or that they can’t afford to let go — have convinced exactly no one.
No, the West has been embracing Israel conditionally, waiting with growing impatience for the Jewish state to find its way out of the Palestinian territories and make peace. Israel’s growing skepticism that withdrawal and peace are feasible only fuels growing European and American skepticism that Israel wants them.
The election of Rubi Rivlin — replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s face to the world with an open annexationist — won’t help.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).