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Eight Things Learned by Watching Israel’s Ugly Presidential Race

by Shmuel Rosner

June 10, 2014 | 6:15 am

Reuven Rivlin, photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/Reuters

Back in February, I dedicated a column I wrote for The New York Times to Israel’s presidential race, which ended on June 10. That column was written long before the troubling revelations that led some of the candidates to quit the race. What I wrote back then — “Israel, a country with an image problem, needs a good ambassador, and can’t afford an embarrassing head of state” — remains valid. And while the candidate who was elected this week is not an embarrassment, the election process definitely was.

There were three official candidates when I wrote that sentence, and today the Knesset chose one from among five candidates. A sixth, former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, had to withdraw over the weekend and is handling a scandal over his finances. The rumored candidacies of a seventh (Minister and former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom) and eighth (also former Foreign Minister David Levy) never truly materialized. One was investigated for sexual misconduct and failed to secure the prime minister’s support; the other realized that he wouldn’t have the votes needed to win. Then there was the awkward attempt to recruit Elie Wiesel for the job. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the attempt — a hasty, desperate move aimed at stopping the candidacy of former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin. Wiesel’s decision to disclose the content of his conversation with Netanyahu, and to publically mock the proposal, was also not quite elegant.

So what have we learned from this pitiful race? Eight things — most of which are unrelated to the ultimate victor.

1. Shimon Peres’ efforts to rehabilitate the president’s office, following the shameful presidency of rapist Moshe Katzav, have been in vain. Peres is not yet retired, but it is already clear that the next president is going to have to start from the beginning — winning the confidence of the public following an undignified and ugly campaign and proving, against great odds, that the office is necessary and can be useful.

2. The Israeli public is in a troubling storm-the-Bastille mood when it comes to its politicians. The media is the public square, and hangings of public officials are a daily routine. That the public wants more honest public servants, who have more integrity and fewer apartments purchased by undeclared funds or unexplainable stashes of cash, is understandable. But riding the tiger of love-your-democracy while hating your politicians can be dangerous.  

3. Then again, if Israeli politicians want to be dignified with public appreciation, they’ll have to learn to be a little less careless about their personal habits. The discovery of a half-million dollars in undeclared cash in a safe, four days prior to election day, doesn’t inspire confidence that a public servant has the interest of the people as his top priority (remember: Olmert’s most memorable and comprehensible sin also involved packets of cash). I don’t preach purism: Israel doesn’t only need bureaucrats who are straight arrows. It needs leaders and politicians who are canny, who can be ruthless, who are innovative; politicians who have big egos — and such people often come with a big appetite for power and, well, cash. Nevertheless, there is a responsibility that rests on the politicians’ shoulders to provide us with a clean-enough political field. And this isn’t about having a better “system” or about having electoral “reform” or about changing this or that law. It is about having reasonable standards of conduct. It is about having shame.

4. Israeli leaders still fancy the folksy image. They want people to think of them as the common man (or woman) who never lost touch with the broader public. To maintain this image, they use their military nicknames (“Fouad”); they use slang; they continue to live in small towns; they claim to want to be “the people’s president.” But this is mostly a facade. In recent days, as the candidates had to disclose their financial situations following the unpleasant revelations concerning one of them, it was immediately evident that most of them live more than comfortably. Their commonality is not at all common. Their folksiness is a well-rehearsed act. If Israel once had (and this was long time ago) politicians that were truly humble in their finances — and were trying to be considered intellectually fit — we now have the mirror-image politicians: not at all humble and trying to avoid any suspicion of being intellectually fit.

5. The two exceptions to the rule mentioned above were the two candidates who did not come from the political world: Nobel chemistry laureate Dan Shechtman and former High Court Justice Dalia Dorner were the odd couple of this race. They proved that it isn’t about the money — Shechtman doesn’t seem to be in need of financial assistance — but rather about the way the money was acquired and the way it is used. They also proved that in politics, having political skills is essential. Dorner got 13 votes, Shechtman got one.

Politics is essential for a candidate and also for the president. Shimon Peres was good at his job, among other things, because he knows how to operate in the political world and on the world stage

6. Reuven Rivlin, our next president, is a politician with a certain elegance. When he realized he was losing to Peres seven years ago, he withdrew from the race and asked his friends to give their votes to the victor, in order to elect the president in a less partisan way. He is folksy, but not anti-intellectual. His finances seem to be in good order. No one has ever accused him of misdeeds. He is a true gentleman. That is to say — at the end of a very ugly campaign, the Knesset ultimately made a reasonable choice.

7. For those who want a “one-apartment president,” Rivlin is a good fit. But while having only “one apartment” can be a condition (I don’t think it should be), it can’t be the only qualification for a president. While likability can be a condition (I don’t think it should be), it can’t be the only qualification for a president. While honesty can be a condition (maybe it should be), it can’t be the only qualification for a president.

The President has two main roles: to be a unifying force within Israel and a great representative for the country abroad. Rivlin can be very good at the former and is not a good choice for the latter. He is not well known abroad, and he has political views that don’t make him a true representative of Israel’s majority. Rivlin is a radical hawk. He is one of the most vocal voices for the annexation of the West Bank. In his defense, we can say the following: Rivlin doesn’t represent the political views of the majority of Israelis — but neither did Shimon Peres represent the political views of the majority of Israelis. So it is possible for a president to carefully maneuver the political minefield and stay alive. But great skill is needed.

8. It should be noted that Rivlin’s previously expressed views about non-Orthodox Judaism raise concerns regarding his ability to speak on behalf of Israel to the world’s non-Orthodox Jews. Jeffrey Woolf has a point when he says that “this entire ‘Affaire Rivlin’ is gratuitous, mean-spirited and disingenuously self-serving” — because it all rests on something Rivlin said a long time ago. Yet Woolf conveniently ignores the fact that Rivlin still hasn’t straightened out the record on this matter. Maybe he was careful not to make any statements concerning his “Jewish policies” as president — and not to retract any previous, damaging, statements — so as not to alienate his Orthodox supporters in the Knesset before the vote. And I can live with that; it is the price of politics. But now that Rivlin is president, a speedy correction should come sooner rather than later. This is easy: All he has to do is place a call to the offices of Reform and Conservative Judaism and simply address the person at the other end of the line as “rabbi.”

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