21 Feb 2020
Israel’s president is a powerful supporter of peace and unity
While Israel’s head of state, President Reuven Rivlin, is less familiar to Australians than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his arrival in Australia is symbolic of the strong relations between the two countries.
Rivlin is the first Israeli President to visit Australia in more than a decade. And he is a fascinating man in many ways.
He had a varied career before entering national politics. Among other things he served in the military, studied law, managed a football team, served as a member of the Jerusalem City Council and was on various boards — including for airline El Al and the Israel Museum. He also has served as a Knesset member for 20 years, included periods as communications minister and Speaker.
His family has lived in Jerusalem since 1809, more than eight generations, and his father was a famous near-east scholar and presidential hopeful who was the first man to translate the Koran into Hebrew, a translation that resides in the library of the world’s most important Muslim-Sunni academy, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Rivlin is a member of the ruling Likud party but, there’s no love lost between Netanyahu and the President. The Prime Minister did everything he possibly could to prevent Rivlin’s election to the post.
Although Rivlin adheres to traditional right-wing positions, such as an unwillingness to accept territorial compromise with the Palestinians, he has become a much-loved unifying figure. He is generally respected by both sides of politics, Jews and Arabs (20 per cent of Israel’s population is Arab), and the religious and secular. Perhaps this is, as much as anything, because of his unflinching support for democratic principles, respect for human rights, opposition to any form or expression of racism and support for the rule of law.
He became a vegetarian as a child when his dog was taken into quarantine, which was near a slaughterhouse in Jerusalem. In a letter explaining the change, he wrote that he “heard the sounds and saw the fear in the helpless animals’ eyes. I always loved animals, but from that day on I became a vegetarian and I believe with all of my heart that animals have the right to live as creatures in their own right and not only to serve man.”
Rivlin (affectionately known by all as Ruvi) was sworn in for his seven-year term of office in 2014. Israel’s presidents are elected by a secret ballot of all members of the Knesset. While essentially a ceremonial position like our governor-general, the president does get to choose who’ll be given the opportunity to form a coalition government after elections. According to the law, he should give it to the person with the best chance of success. Traditionally, this has been to the leader of the largest party. No single party has ever won a clear majority in the Knesset. And next month Israel is facing its third election in a year. So this is real power.
Traditionally, the president doesn’t publicly address political issues. But Rivlin has taken strong positions on the defence of the judiciary, and condemning expressions of racism and discrimination. When he was elected as Speaker of the Knesset, for example, his first official visit was to a pro-Palestinian Arab town. He also refused calls to disqualify an Arab member of parliament after she participated in the flotilla to Gaza.
He’s the country’s most famous supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. But when club supporters voiced anti-Arab sentiments in their chants, he was strongly critical of them. A few years ago, a YouTube video by an Arab-Israeli boy who was subject to homophobic bullying in school caught Rivlin’s attention. He contacted the boy and made another video with him to urge nationwide tolerance.
“Let us promise ourselves that this year we will act for tolerance, empathy, unity, equality — values that we must have in our state,” read the handwritten Hebrew signs that Rivlin and 11-year-old George Amire held up during the video.
But he has his limits. In 2016, Rivlin forbade a member of the Knesset to enter the presidential residence after the individual and other members of the Balad party met the families of Palestinians who were killed while attacking Israeli civilians.
Rivlin represents a side of Israel Australians don’t often see. In one interview, he said if he were an education minister in Israel, “the Hebrew-speaking children would also learn the Koran and the New Testament, and the Arabic-speaking children would also study the Bible. Only then, if we recognise each other’s culture, can we live our destiny together. We are not doomed. That is our mission.”
Australia and Israel can co-operate in many fields to the benefit of both countries. There are thickening ties ranging from defence, cyber security and the start-up world. At a political level, Rivlin’s visit will be an opportunity to deepen economic, scientific and security co-operation. And for the rest of us, it is a valuable opportunity to get to know more about a man who has led the most interesting and ethical political life.