Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.
Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.
It’s likely that Rivlin will not spend much time trying to upstage Netanyahu on war and peace issues and will, instead, devote himself to more domestic concerns along with the traditional symbolic duties of the presidency. But it must be understood that up until the last minute many observers believed that Rivlin would not win because they thought various forces in the Knesset would unite to back an alternative because they could not stomach having a right-winger as president. While the reasons that didn’t happen are complex and largely related to the intricate entangling rivalries between the various parties and leaders in the Knesset, it must also be acknowledged that Rivlin’s win is one more demonstration that the center of Israeli politics is well to the right of where Americans would like it to be. While liberals and others who deride Netanyahu think the views of the popular Peres represent what most Israelis think, the experience of the last 20 years of the peace process have created a new political alignment that means Rivlin’s opinions don’t place him outside of the mainstream.
This is disconcerting for those who would like to believe that Peres, the architect of Oslo process, speaks for Israel in a way that Netanyahu cannot. But even if most Israelis think a two-state solution would be ideal, they know that in the absence of a true peace partner it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The second intifada and the repeated rejections of peace offers by the PA has marginalized the Israeli left even if that reality check hasn’t affected American Jewish opinion.
There is no shortage of prominent Israelis who can be counted on to echo the concerns of its foreign detractors and to blast Netanyahu whenever it will do the most harm to the PM. Indeed, the 90-year-old Peres is expected to try to play kingmaker and attempt to unite the various left-wing factions in an effort to topple the government and/or defeat it at the next election. But for the next few years, Israel’s president won’t be a part of the anti-Netanyahu chorus on that issue even if Rivlin may take shots at the PM over social issues or to speak up for the interests of the settlers. That won’t please Washington and many liberal American Jews. But it reflects the current state of Israeli opinion and the facts on the ground.