Prime Minister Netanyahu was widely criticized last year for his efforts in trying to prevent Reuven Rivlin from being elected president. However, in the light of his recent engagement in politics, which is constitutionally beyond the jurisdiction of the primarily ceremonial role of the president, there may have been significant substance to Netanyahu’s concerns about Rivlin.
At the outset let me say that, like most Israelis, I have a fondness for Rivlin as a friendly character, a man of the people. He is a stark contrast to his predecessor, Shimon Peres, the ultimate diplomat, always coiffed and sartorially elegant to the point of perfection. He was admired from a distance, sought to present himself as a cosmopolitan intellectual, and succeeded.
The more avuncular Rivlin, who worshipped at my local synagogue during the High Holidays, endeared himself to all, ignoring protocol and mingling with the congregants after the service. The intimacy he projects by rubbing shoulders rather than acting as a formal diplomat has made him highly popular at the grass-roots level. Besides, he is in every sense a warm and genial personality who instinctively recoils from pomp and ceremony.
But alas, in recent months he has become increasingly involved in politics, which should be beyond his domain. Admittedly, some of his predecessors, such as Peres and the late Ezer Weizman, also breached the boundaries of their ceremonial constitutional roles and dabbled in politics.
But what makes Rivlin more controversial is that he has seemingly adopted public policies quite inconsistent with his former role as a Likud hard-liner. He has increasingly been publicly critical of government policies and initiated policy innovations that are totally beyond his jurisdiction, such as his recent call for the creation of a confederation of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
He has now gone further and during his recent visit to the United States made totally inappropriate statements and innuendoes about his country, indirectly criticizing his government’s failure to take diplomatic initiatives, which obviously endeared him to U.S. President Barack Obama and the liberal media.
But it was his contentious decision to participate in the Haaretz-New Israel Fund conference in New York and some of the extraordinary statements he made at that venue which suggest that he may be losing the plot.
NGO Monitor refers to the politically far-left New Israel Fund as an organization “active in repeating unsupported allegations of deliberate, systematic, and widespread targeting of Palestinian civilians; war crimes and crimes against humanity, and grave violations of international humanitarian law.” The NIF also provides funds for Jewish and Arab groups that oppose Zionism and a two-state solution.
The conference was essentially a hate-fest and an effort by left-wing American Jews to exert pressure on the democratically elected Israeli government and its security policies, which enjoy the support of the vast majority of its citizens. It attracted a host of anti-Israeli elements including even prominent promoters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement such as former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters.
The conference was addressed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who fully endorses and partakes in the evil incitement that has led to the current killing spree against Israelis emanating from his boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. To compound matters, Erekat demanded that the Israeli flag be withdrawn from the platform and, disgustingly, his hosts complied with this request.
In his address, Erekat “congratulated” Netanyahu for “destroying a culture of negotiations, a culture of dialogue, and a culture of peace.” Speaking with a forked tongue and claiming that he supports a two-state solution, Erekat accused Israel of “promoting apartheid.” Erekat also told the gathering that Israeli security forces had killed his nephew last month — but failed to point out that he was killed after having shot and wounded two Israelis in Jerusalem. His address received a standing ovation from the audience of “progressive” Jews.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power condemned the delegitimization of Israel but then proceeded to apportion equal blame on both sides for insufficient commitment to the peace process, adding that “continued settlement growth raises questions about Israel’s long-term objectives.”
Joint Arab List leader MK Ayman Odeh, who a few days earlier had refused to attend a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations because it shared office space with the Jewish Agency which, he claimed, aims to “disinherit and exclude the Arab population,” received resounding support — Haaretz described him as being “greeted like a rock star.”
The conference was also addressed by Breaking the Silence, a group that concentrates on demonizing the Israel Defense Forces, disseminating lies and accusing it of war crimes. Israeli reservists demonstrated outside Rivlin’s residence, urging him not to participate in a conference that provided a platform for a group whose primary objective is to slander Israel and their role in defense of the nation.
Rivlin rejected all calls not to participate and dignify this anti-Israeli-government forum with his presence. In his address, he did make a spirited defense of the moral code of the IDF but failed to condemn Breaking the Silence and then resumed his subtle criticism of government policy by stating that security is not merely “a military mission.” He conveyed to the fanatically hostile anti-Israeli-government audience the ambiguous message that “we have to find new diplomatic ways, because finding new diplomatic ways is just as important for our safety and security. And for that we need to think out of the box.” Rivlin has never conveyed solutions for the impasse to the government and it is difficult to interpret such remarks other than as criticism — inappropriate for any politician while abroad and infinitely more so for the president of Israel.
What was even more astonishing was Rivlin’s fulsome praise for Haaretz, whose views he disagrees with but which, in his words, nevertheless represents “a beacon of freedom of expression in Israel.” He added, “I believe that the free market of ideas is a holy principal.”
Most Israelis agree about the need for freedom of expression. But if Rivlin insisted on providing legitimacy and addressing such a conference, he should surely at least have employed his freedom of expression to lambast the newspaper, which has promoted post-Zionist editorials, distorted truth in its efforts to demonize Israel, and published front-page headlines about purported IDF crimes (subsequently proven to be false) that paved the way for the Goldstone report and undoubtedly provided more ammunition for the global anti-Israeli media than any other channel.
As president, Rivlin should avoid contributing further to the already dysfunctional Israeli political arena. He must resist the temptation to seek public support by engaging in anti-government or populist rhetoric. He must restrict himself to his constitutional role, remain above politics, and never engage in direct or indirect criticism of the government. He certainly should not identify in any way with Jewish or other groups whose principal objective is to besmirch and undermine his government. This applies especially when he is abroad.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom