The unease with which progressives greeted Reuven Rivlin’s presidency can be forgiven; here was a a member of the largest party in the Knesset, who unabashedly declares his disdain for a two-state solution, openly calling for an annexation of the West Bank. Yet Rivlin is a far cry from the current rank and file of the Likud, a member of the old guard that, despite it’s devotion to the cause of Greater Israel, believes in and cherishes the most basic tenets of democracy. His genuine concern for the well-being of Israel’s minorities is a far cry from the up and coming members of the Knesset who view democratic norms as an irritating hurdle on the way to Jewish supremacy. Nonetheless, his embrace of a one state-solution had driven many on the left to assume that his ascent to the presidency marks the official embrace of the death of the two-state paradigm.
Yet the interesting thing about expectations is how quickly they can turn on you. In the last few weeks, Rivlin has likely surprised many on the Israeli left who had written him off as another hopeless cause. With the war in Gaza raging and intra-communal tension in Israel at their highest in years, Rivlin stepped in to denounce the racist hecklers of a Jewish-Muslim wedding, stating that the protests had crossed the line from freedom of expression to outright incitement. While he may have hinted in his comments that he himself was not ecstatic about the union, his democratic stripes shone through, exclaiming that in a democratic society, respecting one’s decision was crucial; approval was not. Rivlin was once again the center of attention during the tabling of a new bill sponsored by the right-wing and far-right wing that would strip the Arabic language of it’s official status, claiming that such a law would be a blow to coexistence between the communities.
Such statements should not come as a total shock; Rivlin is, after all, known for his good relations with the Palestinian-Israeli community, as well as cordial relationship with some Arab MKs and his fluency in Arabic. And critics might cynically assume that as a right-wing MK, Rivlin’s behavior is only marginally better than that of others in his camp. This dismissive attitude is misplaced; the Israeli left should instead see such behavior as an opportunity to stem the tide of anti-democratic and racist sentiment from within the highest echelons of the government. Far from being a poster boy for extremists, Rivlin should be embraced for standing up to them.
Rivlin is especially well-suited to aid in this mission, with his bona fide right-wing credentials acting as s shield against those eager to tar him as another traitor to the settlement cause. Former president Shimon Peres has not fared as well, his later years being marked by his constant attacks on the right and an almost relentless drive towards a negotiated settlement with the PA. He knows very well, given his early embrace of the settler movement, how it feels to have the extreme-right turn on him. Peres has become, in the eyes of the settlers and their supporters, a persona non grata, a naive leftist who does not have Israel’s best interests at heart.
In contrast, Rivlin has much more sway as an ‘insider’ within the right: he is still very much a proponent of the Greater Israel movement, but believes (perhaps naively) that territorial maximalism can be squared with democracy. While one can, and should disagree with this worldview, the left should admire and embrace Rivlin’s defense of minority rights, his respect for the Supreme Court, and his concern regarding the rising intolerance in Israeli society. As such, it becomes much harder to dismiss claims of rampant racism as leftist propaganda or cheap political posturing.
It is unlikely that Rivlin will follow in the footsteps of other right-wing politicians before him–Olmert, Sharon, Livni, et al–who, having come to realize the inability to reconcile a democratic, Jewish homeland with the occupation, steadily moved away from the latter. Rivlin’s commitment to maintaining control of the West Bank should not disqualify him as an ally of the left, nor should it be assumed that when push comes to shove, he would stand in the way of a peace deal. Quite the opposite; given his outspoken support for the democratic pillars of Israeli society, he is more than likely to support a negotiated settlement put forth by the government and (possibly) approved in a nation-wide referendum. The left over the last few years has made mistake after mistake in combating the racism and extremism of the right. Perhaps, by co-opting someone with Rivlin’s luster can it make real strides in its quest for a staunchly democratic, pluralistic Israel.