The new president will put an end to the daggers at dawn era

The loathing between the outgoing president and the new leader of the opposition was totally mutual


Israeli Labor Party leader and co-leader of the Zionist Union list for the upcoming general election, Isaac Herzog (L) talks with citizens on the phone to try to convince them to vote for them, at the party headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2015, two days ahead of the elections. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Reuven Rivlin and Benjamin Netanyahu served side-by-side as president and prime minister of Israel for six years, ten months and 20 days — nearly President Rivlin’s entire term. Yet when they met each other on Wednesday afternoon in the Knesset Speaker’s sitting-room, just before Isaac Herzog was sworn-in as Israel’s 11th president, neither man could bring himself to acknowledge the other’s presence.

The loathing between the outgoing president and the new leader of the opposition was totally mutual. An hour later, when Mr Rivlin ended his emotional valedictory speech and the entire Knesset rose in a standing ovation, the only person in the plenum not clapping was Mr Netanyahu.

Israeli history is not defined by the man who lives in the rather austere concrete and Jerusalem stone residence in Talbiye. The role of Israel’s head of state is largely defined for him by the prime minister, a precedent set by David Ben-Gurion when he ordered Chaim Weizmann not to send a telegram to US president Harry Truman. It didn’t matter that the main reason that Israel’s founding prime minister appointed Weizmann as acting president two days after Israel declared its independence was recognition of his pivotal role, as the elder statesman of the Zionist movement, in convincing President Truman to support the foundation of the Jewish state. Once the state had become a reality, a clear precedent had to be set for the president. “The only place I’m allowed to stick my nose is my handkerchief,” lamented Mr Weizmann.

Mr Netanyahu, the only prime minister to have served longer than Ben-Gurion and to have come near his level of sole power, was no more charitable towards the presidents he served alongside. He clashed in his first term with Ezer (the nephew) Weizmann over the necessity of meeting with Yasser Arafat. Upon returning to office in 2009, he had to contend with President Shimon Peres, a former prime minister and mega-statesman in his own right.

At first he took advantage of Mr Peres’ global connections, sending him around the world on his behalf to meet other world leaders like Barak Obama, to ease his way back in to the international halls of power. But it didn’t end well. Halfway in to Peres’ presidential term, Netanyahu was already forbidding him from negotiating with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (though he had originally asked him to do so) and Peres had become the secret ringleader of a cabal of security chiefs trying to prevent Israel from going to war with Iran.

When Reuven Rivlin was elected president in 2014, it was daggers at dawn from the start. Mr Netanyahu had done everything he could to prevent the former Knesset speaker from getting the job. He had even called the renowned Jewish writer, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, in New York, to offer him the role. “I’m not even an Israeli citizen,” answered the flabbergasted literary icon, who was already suffering from the cancer that would kill him two years later. He turned the job down.

Next, Netanyahu explored the possibility of abolishing the president’s position altogether. But Mr Rivlin already had too many supporters working within Likud for his election. Leading them was the then-education minister Gideon Sa’ar, who successfully shepherded the Rivlin campaign through the Knesset votes.

Coups and plots

On the day he was elected, Mr Netanyahu acquired not just a rival in the president’s residence but another in his own cabinet. Mr Sa’ar, who had been one of his most trusted lieutenants, serving as his cabinet secretary and chief whip before becoming a minister, would never be trusted again. To date, Rivlin’s election as president is the only successful rebellion within Likud against the party leader in all Netanyahu’s long years at Likud’s helm.

One of the most persistent topics of spin put about by the prime minister’s office throughout Rivlin’s presidency was that he and Sa’ar were plotting to carry out “a coup against the elected prime minister”. The rumours were a major reason why Sa’ar took a three-year break from frontline politics in 2014 and finally broke with Likud in late 2020 to found the anti-Netanyahu New Hope right-wing party.

Rivlin was also not averse to briefing against the prime minister, though the spin coming from his inner circle usually had more of a purchase on the truth. Not always, however. One of the accusations often made against Mr Netanyahu was that he was undermining Mr Rivlin because he intended to do “an Erdogan” — move from the prime minister’s office to a greatly enhanced presidency. The truth is that while Mr Netanyahu has always seen himself, and increasingly acted, as a presidential-style leader rather than a first-among-equals prime minister, he never seriously considered running for an office he despises. He knows where the power in Israel resides and was never going to concede any.


Ironically, while Likud has been in power now for almost half of Israel’s history, only two out of Israel’s eleven presidents have been Likudniks. In fact, Netanyahu, despite his own considerable electoral success, has never managed to dictate to the Knesset a presidential candidate of his choice.

The first Likud president, Moshe Katzav, was elected when Ariel Sharon was party leader. That was also the most dismal of Israeli presidencies, ending in Katzav’s indictment for rape and sexual assault.

Rivlin was only the second president from Likud, but it was a very different Likud to Netanyahu’s party. One of Rivlin’s contemporaries from his Jerusalem childhood and early days as a political hack recalled this week that “Rivlin is the only person in Israeli public life still embodying the official title of Likud – ‘a national liberal party’.”

Rivlin’s legacy will have been trying to counteract Netanyahu’s political strategy of divide and rule and offering Israel a less toxic political discourse. But the constraints of the president’s office, overshadowed as it is by the prime minister’s bully pulpit, meant that his influence was limited. He will be remembered as the president of the later Netanyahu era. Not the other way around.

And what of the new president, Isaac ‘Bougie’ Herzog? He will probably leave even less of a mark than his predecessor. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Bougie Herzog, former Labour leader and Jewish Agency Chairman, is without doubt the best-prepared president in Israel’s short history. He understands the public aspects and demands of his new job so well, he even added a helpful source-note to the quote from the prayer-book he used in the ‘letter to God’ he pushed between the stones of the Western Wall on the day before his inauguration.

Son of a president and grandson of a chief rabbi, Herzog is a crown-prince in a country without a royal family. He knows his place perfectly and will never step on the toes of Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and any other prime minister he serves alongside. He will be the closest thing to Queen Elizabeth II Israel has ever had — a perfect head of state, without a political thought or controversial statement and following the government’s lead to a fault. He could well turn out Israel’s best president ever.



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