'Rubi' wins presidential race


A long and acrimonious campaign came to an end this week with the election of former Knesset speaker and Likud veteran, Reuven "Rubi" Rivlin, as Israel's 10th president.

Mr Rivlin, who is 74, came first out of five candidates with 44 votes in the first round of balloting in the Knesset, and prevailed over former minister Meir Sheetrit with 63 votes in the second round.

For Mr Rivlin, this was a personal vindication after losing the presidential race seven years ago to Shimon Peres. He also had to overcome the deep animosity of his own party's leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While the office of president in Israel is mainly ceremonial, this contest was the most emotional, political and personal in recent times and will have lasting implications for Israeli public life. Mr Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were both against the Rivlin candidacy because they were angered by his actions as Knesset speaker, when he acted independently to block right-wing legislation. The fact that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman failed to agree on a contender to run against Mr Rivlin, is being seen as a sign of the weakness at the top of the Israeli political pyramid.

One Likud insider said: "Bibi failed to block Rubi and the end of the presidential elections are also the beginning of a struggle within Likud between Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and Interior Minister Gidon Saar over who will succeed Netanyahu."

Rivlin had to overcome the deep animosity of his own party leader

Mr Saar was the mastermind of Rivlin's successful campaign and is rapidly becoming the Prime Minister's main rival within the ruling party.

This race also demonstrated an increasing intolerance for sleaze in Israeli politics. Two strong candidates, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom and previous Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, were forced to pull out due to police investigations. The remaining candidates were all compelled, largely due to media pressure, to publicly declare their financial assets - an unprecedented development which could transform future campaigns.

Mr Rivlin will be sworn in at the end of next month to replace President Shimon Peres.

While Mr Peres was seen as Israel's elder statesman, representing Israel on the global stage, his successor is expected to be much more involved on the local scene.

Despite his resolutely right-wing views on the future of the West Bank and his staunch opposition to the disengagement from Gaza eight years ago, Mr Rivlin is popular among large sections of the Israeli public.

These include the Arab communities who remember how, as Knesset Speaker, he opposed legislation they believed was designed to marginalise them.

In addition, his relatively spartan lifestyle is in contrast to the Israeli politicians who have been criticised for using their offices to accumulate personal wealth. Israelis are expecting the Rivlin presidency to be a calmer and more humble period.

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