When the results of this summer’s Israeli presidential election came through, I was in the dentist’s waiting room. All of a sudden, my sense of anxiety grew from the next half-hour to the next seven years.
Five months on, however, I eat humble pie and recognize that Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin is the right man for Israel in 2014.
The new head-of-state is an unashamed rightist who rejects the two-state solution and admires the settlements. Rivlin has stood in Hebron and other West Bank locations, and declared Israel’s rights there to be uncompromising.
I disagree with him.
As Nobel Peace Prize-winning Shimon Peres, the darling of the international community, stepped down, Israel was left in the hands of a man whose opinions on Israel’s presence beyond 1967 borders are contemptible to much of the world. Peres took every opportunity to preach peace, constantly warning that failure to reach a two-state solution could threaten Israel’s future as a Jewish state. Rivlin’s views are the polar opposite.
Peres was right, but Israel needs Rivlin.
The quintessential peacenik, Peres was and is a national treasure. He excelled in the presidency, and gave the position new relevance. But he spoke of what for most Israelis is, at best, a distant future, and one whose arrival is out of his hands and theirs.
The theme of his final Israeli Presidential Conference summed up his term in office. Titled “Facing Tomorrow,” it was a chance to dream about the Israel of the future — its technology, its innovations, and its peace deal. Peres gave Israel the message of hope that it desperately needed during the depressing days of the global economic crisis and the transformation of Gaza into a Hamas-ruled terror base.
Peres’ message to the public was comforting. He said that so long as you don’t give up hope for peace, everything will be OK. People could nod along and say that they were on board just as soon as Jerusalem and Ramallah get their acts together. Nothing more was needed from them. The nation didn’t feel challenged by him.
Rivlin, by contrast, is making people feel uncomfortable, and rightly so. Israeli society has serious internal problems, which he has started to address with unimaginable forcefulness since he assumed office. And precisely because he’s not Peacenik Peres, but rather a man of the right, he’s hard to ignore. Nobody can cast aspersions on his motives for speaking out.
Two weeks ago, Rivlin said: “The tension between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel has risen to record heights, and the relationship between all parties has reached a new low. We have all witnessed the shocking sequence of incidents and violence taking place by both sides.”
He said that the “epidemic of violence” is everywhere. Then, really hammering his point home, he declared: “It is time to honestly admit that Israeli society is sick — and it is our duty to treat this disease.”
Last week, Rivlin visited the northern Arab town of Kafr Qasim, along with local authority heads from neighboring Jewish towns. He took part in a memorial for an incident in 1956 that saw Israeli border police kill 48 Arab civilians — deaths that a court later declared illegally perpetrated — and his office described the event as a “massacre.” He declared: “We must understand what occurred here. We must educate future generations, about this difficult chapter, and the lessons which we learn from it.” He stated that the Arab minority “will always be a fundamental component of Israel society.”
Soon after assuming office, he chose Israel’s largest Arab town, Umm al-Fahm, as the destination for his first visit, and throughout the summer’s Hamas-Israel conflict he worked hard to limit the fallout in terms of Arab-Jewish relations within Israel.
The two-state solution will not succeed or fail based on Israel’s largely ceremonial head of state. But Rivlin’s dogged emphasis on citizenship, with all its rights and responsibilities, can do much to heal a fractured society. He is proving himself to be a man of deeply ingrained principle, who can call the bluff of those on the Israeli right who betray their movement, and tell them to stop using politics as an excuse for thuggery.
He is the man to speak to the likes of the soccer fans who, in one of the most shocking displays of the aggressive ideology taking hold among growing numbers of Israeli youths, went on the rampage in a Jerusalem mall, beating up Arab workers a couple of years ago. He is the man to address those who make excuses for the Jewish extremists who murdered the Arab teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July. He is the man to address the “price tag” vandals, who attack mosques as misguided political protest when they deem the government’s actions to be bad for the settlements.
They can’t dismiss his hawkish credentials. And he explains more eloquently and more passionately than any Israeli public figure around that this is not the way of the Israeli right. In Kafr Qasim he quoted the founder of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the ideological father of the Zionist right, on the need to protect civil rights.
I can already see Israeli Jews starting to think differently; starting to draw more distinction between what is “politics” and what is simply respect for fellow citizens of a different ethnicity.
Rivlin, since he took office, has also assuaged initial fears that he may be on a collision course with diaspora Jewry. He has stressed the importance of Jewish unity and respect between Jewish movements, in an apparent attempt to shake the reputation as antagonistic to non-Orthodox Jewry that stems from comments he made 25 years ago.
These are challenging days for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis are increasingly skeptical of the chances of a two-state solution, and exploring alternatives, including the one that seems to interest Rivlin, namely annexing the West Bank.
As the murder of Yitzchak Rabin 19 years ago this week showed, there can be a slippery slope from the “Whole Land of Israel” ideology in to lawless conduct on sovereign Israeli territory. Rivlin, a man who balances this ideology with a deep liberalism, is the moral and ethical figure needed to guide Israel though this period of regrouping.
The dream of an Israeli president being able to single-handedly usher in an era of peace is unrealistic. But Rivlin is proving that, internally, he can help to save the nation from itself, drawing red lines between legitimate political discourse and the perils of racism and undemocratic behavior.