8 things you should know about Israel’s new president

Reuven Rivlin likes to tell ‘quirky’ jokes, opposes a Palestinian state but has allies across the aisle, got ‘pied,’ and doesn’t eat meat

Israeli president-elect Reuven Rivlin speaks to members of the press at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Israeli president-elect Reuven Rivlin speaks to members of the press at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The Knesset vote is in, and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin has been elected Israel’s tenth president. A fairly beloved figure in Israel and a relative unknown abroad, here’s everything you need to know about Israel’s new citizen number one, known affectionately to many as “Rubi” (… and “Ruby” and “Ruvi”).

1. He does not believe in a two-state solution: Rivlin, a staunch hawk, has voiced his opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state on many occasions, most recently in an interview with The Times of Israel. However, despite his objections, Rivlin maintained he would not intervene in peacemaking efforts if the government should support the measure. Rivlin has stated repeatedly that he would opt for a binational state, granting Palestinians full citizenship, over plans that would divide the land. Rivlin referred to himself as “a utopianist” in this regard. “I have a vision that suddenly all the Jewish people [from around the world] will come to live here… And if there were 10 million Jews here, we wouldn’t have to give up on anything,” he told The Times of Israel. His resolutely right-wing reputation has not alienated Israeli-Arab MKs, however, who were said to back the candidate on Tuesday.

2. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to despise him: The long-standing rumors of rivalry between the two Likud members reached new heights in recent months when Netanyahu made attempts to abolish the presidency, as well as other efforts to sabotage the campaign — such as begging Nobel-Laureate Elie Wiesel to accept the position — as Rivlin slowly distinguished himself as the front-runner. Speculation abounds as to the source of the friction between the two: some say it harks back to a jab Rivlin made alluding to Sara Netanyahu’s role in political affairs, to which the prime minister’s wife took offense; others maintain it was Rivlin’s fierce criticism of Netanyahu’s policies while Rivlin was Knesset speaker that spurred the hostility. At the end of the day, however, Netanyahu endorsed Rivlin for president, and Rivlin insisted Tuesday there was “no bad blood” between them.

3. He comes from an illustrious Jerusalemite dynasty: Rivlin’s ancestor Rabbi Hillel Rivlin was a student of the famed 18th century rabbinic scholar the Vilna Gaon, and was dispatched to Israel along with other students on the rabbi’s instructions to establish a Jewish community. Hillel Rivlin moved to Israel in 1809, and both he and later his son were involved in purchasing land in Jerusalem for Jewish settlement. The pioneering spirit persisted in other family members, such as Yosef-Yoshe, founder of Nahalat Shiva and one of the first settlers of the cities of Rosh Pina and Petah Tikva; and an previous Reuven Rivlin who was involved in settling Kiryat Shmuel.

4. He will be Israel’s first vegetarian president: Since the late 1960s, Rivlin has eschewed meat products for reasons of conscience.

5. He was a victim of political “pie-ing”: In 2001, while serving as communications minister, Rivlin exited a government meeting and had a cream pie hurled at his face by a young female activist. The activist was detained by Knesset security along with a number of others, who said they were protesting the concentration of Israeli media among a few wealthy families and Rivlin’s failure to “support public interests” as communications minister. Rivlin was said to be uncharacteristically embarrassed by the incident, but when he regained his composure quipped “I have insurance for many things, but not for whipped cream.”

6. He’s particularly concerned with the sensitivities of Israeli Arabs: During a 2011 Knesset day-long debate over ways to attract Arabs into public service, Rivlin, then Knesset speaker, said he opposed a bill to give preference in government hiring to IDF veterans and national service participants.  Rivlin argued that since most Arabs do not serve, this would put them at an unfair disadvantage as they pursued jobs in the public sector. He also criticized the Knesset for failing to meet the 10% threshold in minority hirings. In July 2012, Rivlin lambasted a Jewish Home plan to draft Israeli Arabs into the IDF.  “These calls are populism at best,” he said, “and have a tone of incitement at worst.” He called instead for a separate Arab national service infrastructure be set up to allow young Arab citizens to serve in their own communities.

7. He’s known as a pretty funny guy:  A cousin of beloved comedian Sefi Rivlin, Ruby is often described as having a “quirky” sense of humor. It often has a self-deprecating character to it — when he was about to be ousted as Knesset speaker in 2013 (possibly over a joke he made about Netanyahu’s wife), Rivlin said, “I got to hear my eulogies while I was still alive.”

Here’s Rivlin on the Israeli skit show “Eretz Nehederet”:

8. He oversaw one of the most heated debates in Knesset history. On June 6, 2010, Balad MK Hanin Zoabi was slated to return to the Knesset for the first time since she had been detained while accompanying a blockade-busting flotilla from Turkey to Gaza. Israeli navy seals who had attempted to assume control of the flotilla ship Mavi Marmara were violently attacked by pro-Palestinian activists, and responded by opening fire, killing nine. Predictably, the Knesset debate on “Israeli reaction to the Gaza flotilla” turned ugly, resulting in the expulsion of 14 MKs as the lawmakers nearly came to blows. Rivlin, who carefully watched most of the proceedings from his chambers while a hand-picked deputy struggled to maintain order, called the session the most tense since a 1952 debate over the Holocaust reparation agreement with Germany.

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