President-elect Reuven Rivlin opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, a position that contradicts that of the incumbent president, and to some extent also clashes with that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at least publicly professes to support the idea of two states for two peoples.
Shimon Peres, by repeating in every meeting with world leaders over the last few years that “there is no other game in town than the two-state solution,” somewhat counterbalanced the hawkish policies of the two last Netanyahu governments. Now that the popular Nobel peace laureate is being replaced by someone who rejects that two-state solution, how will Israel fare in a world that wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state, and overwhelmingly blames Jerusalem for the current stalemate in the peace process?
For the head of state to espouse views so radically different from those of the head of government could spell serious trouble for Israel, some analysts fear. Others, however, point out that the president has limited powers to intervene in policy issues and that, more importantly, Rivlin is unlikely to publicly oppose positions adopted by the government.
“Ruby Rivlin can do a lot more harm than Peres did good,” said Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, an expert on political communications, using Rivlin’s nickname. A president who speaks continually about the need for peace hardly raises an eyebrow abroad, “but a president who talks about opposing two states and in favor of settlements — that would certainly make huge headlines.”
Bad news spreads more quickly — and widely — than good news, Wolfsfeld said, and statements undermining Israel’s image as a state interested in reaching a fair peace agreement with the Palestinians would certainly be seen as bad news in the international media and capitals around the world.
“Ninety percent of Israel’s problems with the international community have to do with the perception that the government is not doing enough for peace,” Wolfsfeld said. “If Rivlin says provocative things, then we’re in trouble even more. If he avoids slips of the tongue of the kind we know he is sometimes prone to make, we should be alright. But he could certainly say things at some point that could embarrass the government.”
Rivlin is an emotional character who often says things in the heat of the moment that he later regrets, Channel 2’s chief political analyst Rina Matzliah said. Once the born Jerusalemite moves into his fancy new residence on 3 President’s Street, he should try to keep his more controversial views to himself in order not to embarrass the government, she recommended. “But based on our experience with Ruby Rivlin there is no chance that he will do that.”
Ari Shavit, a veteran journalist for the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, suggested that Rivlin will not be the president of Israel but that of Greater Israel. “He will exploit the presidential institution to advance the West Bank settlement project, which he worships, and the one-state solution he believes in,” Shavit wrote. Rivlin, he predicted, “won’t hesitate to speak out and act to foil any attempt to divide the land.”
But Rivlin is more than his opposition to a two-state solution. During his two terms as Knesset Speaker, he wasn’t afraid to confront the right wing — for example by opposing legislation he deemed as discriminatory and undemocratic, which won him many friends even among Israeli left-wingers. MKs Ilan Gilon (Meretz) and Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) voted for Rivlin, as did all four MKs from the Arab-Israeli Ra’am-Ta’al faction.
“He has an opinion on the two-state solution, but he is not widely seen as an ultra-nationalist,” said Mitchell Barak, a pollster and political analyst. “He’s one of voices of reason in Likud; he’s not a hothead like Danny Danon.” The president-elect’s views on the peace process are not born of hatred for Arabs, as his voting record and his statements as Knesset speaker attest, and the Arabs and the world at large know that, he said.
Even the editorial board at the left-wing Haaretz has sympathies for Rivlin. It endorsed him for president before Tuesday’s election, together with former Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner. “For years, Rivlin has preached the need for cooperation between Jews and Arabs. And as Knesset speaker, he extended a hand to the Arab factions, in sharp contrast to his colleagues on the right,” an editorial read last week. “He opposed the wave of nationalist legislation in the previous Knesset, and paid for this stance in the Likud party primary. He has always maintained independent views.”
Presidents have strong opinions but limited powers
In this context, it should be remembered that Israel’s president is a largely ceremonial figure with very limited powers when it comes to questions of war and peace. There is no more vigorous advocate of a two-state solution than Shimon Peres, and yet he was unable in his seven-year term to bring Israel any closer to an agreement (although he sure did try, for example in 2011, when he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had essentially reached a draft agreement on “almost all issues” after several secret meetings in Jordan, as he revealed last month.)
The president’s functions and duties are outlined in The Basic Law: The President of the State, which was passed in 1964. They include signing laws, appointing governments (based on who’s best equipped to form a stable coalition), accrediting the state’s diplomats and commuting sentences. Importantly, the law does not state what the president is not allowed to do. Hence, there is nothing that would prohibit Rivlin from speaking his mind about issues he deems important.
However, that doesn’t mean that Israel’s 10th president will take advantage of that option and tout his view on the peace process to every international dignitary who visits Jerusalem. “A president is only as influential as he wants to be,” Barak said.
Peres, who was to the left of Netanyahu, did not seek confrontation with Netanyahu’s governments, and neither will Rivlin, several analysts predicted.
“Peres had different views but he always expressed them in a dignified, reserved way. He didn’t overstep the boundaries of his position; he reported everything he did to the prime minister and didn’t do anything without his consent,” said Arye Carmon, the founding president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Rivlin, too, will most likely stay out of politics, Carmon assessed. “I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a profound champion of democracy, and I have very serious doubts whether he will express those views [on Palestinian statehood] from the President’s Residence,” he said. “My assumption is that he will always respect the decisions of the democratically elected government.”
Most if not all of the incoming president’s energies will be devoted to internal issues, such as strengthening democracy, promoting better governance and advocating for more tolerance and unity, he presumed.
What does Rivlin himself say about the issue? In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, he made plain that he does not believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but promised that he wouldn’t interfere in government policies, regarding peace or any other issue.
“I won’t intervene in Knesset decisions. [The MKs] will decide Israel’s borders, and its [policies on] peace. The president is a bridge to enable debate, to reduce tensions, to alleviate frictions,” he said. “It’s not for the president to determine the arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Arab world,” Rivlin added, “but to be the bridge between opinions, and to facilitate dialogue and understanding.”
Indeed, the presidency’s nonpartisan character “is its raison d’être,” he stated last month, at the height of his campaign. “The ability of the president to be perceived as someone with whom all Israelis can identify depends on his ability to avoid being a party to debate. The politicization of the presidency would pose a real threat to the institution and its function.”
During the next seven years, Rivlin will have the opportunity to prove that he has truly abandoned the world of partisan politics and policies, and focus on what he pledged his presidency will be all about: uniting a fragmented society and promoting social values, education and democracy.