Forward Thinking

Awkwardness Is Reuven Rivlin’s Gift to the Left

By Sigal Samuel

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Newly elected Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images

Is Reuven Rivlin’s ascendancy to the post of president good news for left-wing Israelis?

Yes, but not for the reasons most left-wing commentators are suggesting.

Progressives should cheer Rivlin’s election not because he supports equal rights for Israeli Arabs or because he wants to give Palestinians the vote in an Israeli-annexed West Bank, but because his new position in the limelight will help to clarify what should already be abundantly clear: that official Israel’s support for a two-state solution is a farce, and has been for a long time.

It’s true that as president of Israel Rivlin will hold a mostly ceremonial, symbolic position. But figureheads are important in their own way. They telegraph to the world what a country (putatively) stands for — its most cherished values and ideals. When Shimon Peres held the top spot, he made clear the value of the two-state solution. Rivlin, by contrast, will signal the exact opposite message: an undivided Greater Israel is, to him, the supreme and ultimate value.

Immediately upon being elected president, Rivlin swore he’d represent all Israelis — not just the right-wing annexationist Jew crew of which he is a part. But that kind of assurance is completely beside the point. Everyone knows what Rivlin really stands for: a State of Israel in which Palestinians get the right to vote, but give up on the dream of national self-determination in the form of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Having him in the top spot will make it much harder for Netanyahu to go on publicly promoting the illusion that official Israel supports two states. The optics will be bad. Because, as Akiva Eldar has pointed out, no one’s going to be inviting Rivlin to travel to the White House to convince the Americans that Israel really is committed to ending the occupation and withdrawing from the West Bank. No one’s going to invite him to the Vatican to hug Mahmoud Abbas and smile pretty for the Pope’s cameras. He’s not that sort of guy.

And that’s a good thing. He won’t be Bibi’s fig leaf, that’s for sure. More than that, the disparity between his stated vision for Israel and the prime minister’s will force some uncomfortable conversations — some real reckoning with Israel’s entire political apparatus. Because, unlike other expansionist right-wingers, when Rivlin proposes a one-state solution he actually does bother to outline (however vaguely) some possible models for what that might look like. He doesn’t expect Palestinians to just vote for the Israeli Knesset; instead, he proposes a dual parliament system, which would mean that the electoral system would need to undergo a major overhaul.

Rivlin is bringing into the Israeli political mainstream a one-state vision that has for years been cast as fringe. In so doing, he gives the lie to the notion that the two-state solution is the only solution Israel’s top brass can and will ever seriously consider. He forces a deep reconsideration of the options facing Israelis, Palestinians and sometime-peace-brokering Americans — particularly now that the peace process has turned up DOA for the umpteenth time.

That shake-up is going to be monstrously eye-opening, uncomfortable and awkward for everyone involved. At the end of the day, that awkwardness is Rivlin’s gift to the left.


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