Reuven Rivlin attends a Likud Party meeting at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem, on June 9, 2014. Former Israeli parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin was elected as Israel's new president Tuesday, June 10, in a runoff vote by the Israeli Knesset. Jini/Xinhua / Zuma Press / MCT

Rivlin defies expectations

Israel’s right wing just isn’t what it used to be, try as Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu may to speak for all Jewish people. He doesn’t, by the way. At the end of the day, Netanyahu is no Menachem Begin.

Storied Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a complicated man. He headed the Irgun terror organization in mandate Palestine, ordering attacks on civilians and the infamous bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946.

In 1977, he ran as the candidate for marginalized Middle Eastern Jews in Israel, becoming Israel’s first right-wing Premier. Before overseeing a highly contested incursion into Lebanon, Begin made Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab country, Egypt, in 1978. 

If Begin’s complex legacy has taught us anything, it is that Israel’s most iconic, bold and daring leaders are its most enigmatic.

One may ask why I bring up Begin now, of all times. Indeed, I lament the fact that the elections may well usher in a new term for Bibi. I insist on discussing Menachem Begin because, as far as I’m concerned, Israel’s visionary leader is not the one who sits at the head of the Knesset, but the man who holds a rather ceremonial role.

Before becoming President, Reuven Rivlin was a Likud stalwart, serving in the Knesset for 25 years. He does not support the two state solution, seeing no need for the creation of a Palestinian state. As he sees it, Gaza and the West Bank should become a part of Israel, and as such, their residents should become Israeli citizens. It’s safe to say I strongly differ with President Rivlin on this issue, for a number of reasons. I believe the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must take the form of two states: a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state.

Here is where things get interesting. Years before his Presidency, Rivlin was already making waves. In 2009, charges were brought against Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi. Certain members of the Knesset sought to ban their colleague from government proceedings as punishment for participating in the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Then Speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin unapologetically blocked the ban, calling it undemocratic and unacceptable.

In the months since his election, he has dared to confront arguably the ugliest issues facing Israeli society and government.

In the fall of 2014, George Amira, 11, of Jaffa courageously made a video about the relentless bullying he had faced in school. Upon receiving word of the boy’s jarring experience, Rivlin personally invited Amira, an Arab, to his home to make a new video and kickstart an anti-bullying campaign. 

Rivlin’s most important contribution thus far, however, is advocacy on behalf of Israeli Arabs. Earlier this month, on the plight of this minority, he observed that “we were meant to live together, and if we understand that that is where our future is — we will succeed.” 

Make no mistake, Rivlin’s words are far from hollow.

Not so long ago, an Arab-Jewish couple to be wed in Rishon LeZiyyon faced disgusting demonstrations against the marriage. They were forced to hire extra security for their wedding over concerns that protests near the ceremony may get out of hand and turn violent. President Rivlin promptly defied bigoted protestors, publicly wishing the couple nothing but sincere congratulations. 

Earlier this year, first-grade classrooms in the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Coexistence School were attacked by racially motivated arsonists. Rivlin responded by inviting the entire first grade class to spend time at his residence, where they learned, talked and played soccer together. He called them a model for Israel’s future, for truly sustainable coexistence, in the best interests of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples. 

Rivlin’s dedication to the Arabs of Israel runs deep. Setting a precedent, he recently attended a memorial ceremony for a 1956 massacre by Israeli police of 49 Arabs in Kfar Kassem, acknowledging the Israeli government’s responsibility for the crime and apologizing on its behalf.

I will be the first to admit that I was not initially thrilled about an Israeli president who opposes the two-state solution, to say the least. Half a year later, it is clear that in spite of such a controversial opinion on such a fundamental issue, an inspiring figure is at Israel’s helm.

I am proud of a president who is deeply committed to the core of Israel’s democracy. I am proud of a president who speaks fluent Arabic and confronts and condemns racial violence. I am proud of a man who believes in — and vocally advocates for — a more inclusive Israel.

Whether or not Prime Minister Netanyahu manages to extend his tenure come March, I look forward to seeing what President Rivlin does next.

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