If this were a normal political year in Israel and it was governed by a normal government, there would be a new president-elect in June. That’s when a successor would be chosen in time for the conclusion of Shimon Peres’ presidency in July. There are candidates who’ve already thrown their hats in the ring. But there’s one small problem: Bibi Netanyahu refuses to allow an election date to be set. There’s one big problem: one candidate is almost assured of winning and Bibi, or more precisely his wife, Sara, hates his guts. That’s Reuven Rivlin, a Likud elder statesman and former Knesset speaker, who was summarily dismissed by the prime minister at the beginning of his last term.
That’s why Netanyahu has floated trial balloons over the past week that would postpone the election and eliminate the presidency. He’s suggested either that Israel turn from a parliamentary to a presidential system, in which the executive would take over the role of prime minister. He’s also proposing that the president not determine who gets first shot at forming a government, but that the leader of the largest party in the Knesset would automatically do so.
Though other coalition members like Yair Lapid and especially Tzipi Livni (who was bypassed by Peres despite the fact that she’d won more seats than the Likud), have proposals about abolishing the presidency, no one’s buying Bibi’s patently obvious power-play. Even fellow Likudniks like Gideon Saar are protesting that this is one bridge too far for them.
Why does Bibi hate Rivlin? There can be many reasons: Rivlin is one of the last Likud elders to remain in the Knesset after the settler faction ousted Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan during the last party primaries. These lions of the Old Guard represented not ideological firebrands, not territorial expansionists, but a principled throwback to the old Herut, a party which espoused economic liberalism and social conservatism. You can liken it to the split that beset the Republican Party in the 1960s between traditional conservatives and ideological purists (like Goldwater). That battle continues even today with the fight between the mainstream GOP and the Tea Party. In today’s Likud, there are the Feiglins who appear to be the leadership of the future and the Rivlins, the leadership of the past.
Rivlin appears to have suffered a similar fate to others who expected major promotions from the prime minister only to get on the bad side of Sara. I’ve recounted a number of times how this happened to Yitzhak Ilan, who expected to be named Shabak chief, only to lose out to the eventual victor, Yoram Cohen. Madame LaFarge also got her revenge on Rivlin as this news account notes (Hebrew and English):
Rivlin alluded to a cabal presided over by Bibi’s wife, and Avigdor Lieberman which worked to drive him from the Knesset speakership. “Seems to me there were only three people who didn’t want me to have the job. That is the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu and the prime minister.” Rivlin didn’t mention Sara Netanyahu by name, but referred to her as “the person always in the center of things but always behind the scene. I don’t go into gossip and such things.”
Similarly, leaders in the ruling party told the same Haaretz reporter than Sara is also behind Bibi’s efforts to delay the election:
…Senior Likud officials speculated that Netanyahu’s wife Sara was behind the move to delay the election because of her animosity toward Rivlin.
“Netanyahu and Rivlin have a history of conflicts from the years Rivlin was Knesset speaker,” said a Likud source. “One argument relates to a slip of the tongue by Rivlin — when he said at a Knesset gathering that his wife was not involved in his decision making. Those present understood that Rivlin was criticizing Sara Netanyahu and her involvement in her husband’s doings, even though Rivlin denied this.”
The source said that since then, “Sara has been working to stymie Rivlin’s election to the presidency, and the move to delay or cancel the election is part of the bad blood.”
The Netanyahus want a figurehead president. One who will know his place. One who won’t step on the PM’s shoes or involve himself in political negotiations or intrigue as Shimon Peres has done. They understand that Rivlin would be another president in Peres’ mold. He would have a power base of his own unbeholden to Bibi. He might speak out against Bibi at times in ways like Peres has. Even this timid, tepid opposition is too much for the Israeli Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
It is, of course, a mistake to see any Israeli leader as a Great White Hope who will save Israel and Zionism. This is an error that liberal Zionists make all too often. First it was Rabin, then Sharon, and to a lesser extent Olmert, who were going to “do a DeGaulle” and finally separate Israel from its calamitous colonial catastrophe. They would see clear to the heart of the matter, through pure pragmatism, that Israel must recognize a Palestinian state before it was too late. They would do what their predecessors either could not or would not.
All that being said, Rivlin is nonetheless an intriguing character. To understand something about his politics, it’s useful to read this Haaretz interview from 2010 in which he embraces a one state solution. Yes, a full-blood Likudnik endorses one-state. And not as a Kahanist seeking to offer Palestinians a second-class status that would permanently accord Jewish citizens primacy. But rather as a traditional democrat:
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said Thursday that he would rather accept Palestinians as Israeli citizens than divide Israel and the West Bank in a future two-state peace solution.
…Referring to the possibility that such a [two state] agreement could be reached [with the PA], Rivlin said: “I would rather Palestinians as citizens of this country over dividing the land up.”
…Rivlin said…that Israel’s Arab population was “an inseparable part of this country. It is a group with a highly defined shared national identity, and which will forever be, as a collective, an important and integral part of Israeli society.”
In a speech given in the president’s residence, the Knesset speaker called for a fundamental change in relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, urging the foundation of a “true partnership” between the two sectors, based on mutual respect, absolute equality and the addressing of “the special needs and unique character of each of the sides.”
Rivlin also said that “the establishment of Israel was accompanied by much pain and suffering and a real trauma for the Palestinians,” adding that “many of Israel’s Arabs, which see themselves as part of the Palestinian population, feel the pain of their brothers across the green line – a pain they feel the state of Israel is responsible for.”
“Many of them,” Rivlin says, “encounter racism and arrogance from Israel’s Jews; the inequality in the allocation of state funds also does not contribute to any extra love.”
After reading this, you say to yourself: how can he say these things and be in the Likud? Or even Labor, which favors a two-state solution. If he’s sincere (which is an open question), he must realize that a one-state solution would sooner or later mean Israeli Jews would become a political minority and thus lose their primacy in the politics of the state. That would appear to be anathema to any red-blooded Likudnik.
Nevertheless, Rivlin’s endorsement of one-state is both a shock and a revelation. Anyone who can espouse such clear, principled views while claiming the mantle of the Likud is a clear and present danger to Netanyahu and must be stopped.