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Why Israel’s President Talks to Obama, but Not to Netanyahu

Reuven Rivlin’s visit to Washington last month may say more about the Jewish state’s political infighting than its foreign policy

Yael Even Or and Omri Nahmias
January 13, 2016
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama (R) talks with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during a bilateral meeting at the white House in Washington, DC, December 9, 2015. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama (R) talks with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during a bilateral meeting at the white House in Washington, DC, December 9, 2015. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing the president of the United States smiling and laughing arm-in-arm with an Israeli head of state need look no further than Israeli President Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin’s most recent visit to Washington last month. President Barack Obama couldn’t have looked more thrilled to have him at the White House, and President Rivlin made sure to show his excitement and to express his gratitude for “what you have done in the last six years: for the finance, for the diplomatic, and for the military help that you are giving us.”

Obama’s embrace of Rivlin was unlikely to have signaled his approval of all the Israeli president’s views. Rivlin is considered to be to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to possible solutions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he has always opposed the two-state solution. Nevertheless, he’s been an advocate for a strong partnership and strategic collaboration with the United States.

Yet the pleasure that the two leaders took in the moment probably had even more to do with the heartburn they were causing for their shared foe: Netanyahu.

Yet Rivlin, at least, was once a Netanyahu loyalist. In 2006, when Rivlin, then a veteran MK, was appointed to chair the Netanyahu election campaign, he joked with his colleagues that he got the job by simply being the only person to accept it: Everyone knew the Likud party was about to hit rock bottom in its fight against the newly established Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon. Yet Rivlin remained loyal to the party and to Netanyahu.

The predictions for a bitter loss indeed came true, as Likud went from holding 38 parliament seats to 12. In the now-shrunken party, MKs started to question Netanyahu’s role and discuss his replacement. But Rivlin made it clear he would stand by the party leader. “He used to say that Bibi is a man that makes people pay heed, and someone like that is needed,” a former Likud MK said. (The former MK spoke on condition of anonymity because of his close relations with the two.)

Rivlin’s loyalty to Netanyahu had roots that went back to their childhoods in Jerusalem. In fact Rivlin could claim to have known Bibi since the younger man was born. In 1949, the 10-year-old Rivlin was a guest at Netanyahu’s brit milah, by virtue of mother Zila Netanyahu’s friendship with Rivlin’s aunt. And yet, according the former MK who knows both well, Rivlin was never a fan of Netanyahu’s personality. “Even in Netanyahu’s first term, in the 1990s, there were some tensions between them. Ruvi is a very warm person, and Netanyahu is very reserved. When Arik Sharon headed the party, Rivlin chose to support him.”

In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister again. The Likud party recovered and won 27 parliamentary seats. Rivlin was appointed speaker of the Knesset, a post he had held between 2003 and 2006. And then, when they were both back from the exile in the opposition and held powerful positions again—their relationship disintegrated.


It’s hard to point to one incident that soured their relationship since 2010, but the distrust between the two men has never been a secret. In the three years leading up to the 2013 elections Rivlin used the Knesset podium on a number of occasions to criticize and embarrass Netanyahu. The prime minister was trying at the time to reform the state budget process so the government would have to approve it only once in two years, taking away one of the Knesset’s most powerful tools to challenge his rule. In October of 2010, when the Knesset was back from recess, Rivlin attacked Netanyahu for making MKs powerless. In 2012, he demanded Netanyahu reveal the content of the deal he made with Shaul Mofaz, then leader of the opposition, in order for Kadima to join the government.

One could have interpreted their strife as derived from their positions as heads of Israel’s executive and legislative branches, respectively—between a prime minister who’s focused on keeping his seat and a Knesset speaker whose job is to defend the dignity of the parliament. That is the position of the current Director of the President’s Office, Harel Tobi. “Rivlin was committed to the values of democracy as he understood them and to fulfill his duties,” Tobi said. “The Economic Arrangements Law (an omnibus bill) is an issue every year, and it was the source of many arguments.”

But there is also clearly a more personal aspect to the bad blood that exists between the two men. For a few years now there’s been a stream of reports and rumors about the unusual involvement of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, in the country’s political affairs. In 2010 a few reports claimed that Sara Netanyahu was involved in the decision-making on several appointments. Following these reports, in a discussion about a parliamentary appointment, Rivlin told the leadership of the coalition, according to Ynet: “Maybe I’ll ask my wife who to appoint? But maybe not, because in my case, my wife doesn’t make the appointments.” Rivlin also used to joke around, supposedly telling people not to smear Netanyahu, but using the biblical word for smear—which is pronounced in Hebrew as Sara.

Netanyahu couldn’t tolerate this kind of contempt, especially not from a member of his own party. After the 2013 elections, Netanyahu helped make sure that Rivlin was ousted from his position as the speaker of the Knesset. There were political circumstances that made this move convenient, such as the merger of the Likud party with Israel Beitenu party, and the fact that its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, wasn’t on good terms with Rivlin either, but his rift with Netanyahu played the largest role.

Rivlin was furious. He was the only MK to have abstained from the vote on his replacement, Yuli Edelstein. “It would be ridiculous of me to vote in favor of my own dismissal,” he said then. He refused to meet with Netanyahu prior to Edelstein’s confirmation, and up until today the response from his office to that saga is edgy. “You’d have to ask Netanyahu about that,” Tobi said. “Rivlin was promised more than a few times that he’ll continue to serve as a speaker of Knesset, but at the moment of truth Netanyahu withdrew his support and Rivlin wasn’t even a candidate.”

From that moment on their rift became an open and seemingly permanent one. Rivlin’s replacement was seen not only as revenge for his past behavior but also as a means to prevent him from winning the presidential race in 2014. A senior official who works closely with the prime minister denies that Rivlin was ousted. (The official requested anonymity because of the already sensitive relationship between the two offices.) “He made the statement that he wants to run in the presidential elections, and so it wasn’t healthy that he’ll do it from his position as the chairman,” he said. From that moment on, the senior official argues, Rivlin became oppositional and confrontational to both the prime minister and the party in order to, he said, “curry favor with the media and the left, so they’ll embrace him.”

Netanyahu took all possible measures to thwart Rivlin’s candidacy, including approaching Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and offering him the job—only to realize Wiesel is not qualified, since he’s not an Israeli citizen. When it hit Netanyahu that Rivlin was the strongest candidate, he came up with a new idea—only a month before the designated date—he’d cancel the presidency. “It’s an unnecessary and wasteful concept,” his aides told Israel’s Channel 2. Eventually, 10 days before the elections, Netanyahu had no choice and published an endorsement of his party’s candidate, Rivlin. He excused his stalling by saying he was waiting to see the final candidates list. Rivlin published a laconic announcement: “I thank the prime minister for supporting my candidacy.” On June 10, 2014, Rivlin was elected president of Israel. He and Netanyahu met a few days later and decided to put the bad years behind them. But in practice, nothing changed.

Some of Rivlin’s public moves as president have been seen by Netanyahu’s people as efforts to show the prime minister in a bad light, including Rivlin’s journeys to Germany and the Czech Republic on low-cost flights. The Israeli media happily celebrated the president who flies coach, while the prime minister is reported to have spent millions of dollars on flights in a specially outfitted jet. Rivlin is being careful not to talk publicly about his relationship with Netanyahu from a personal perspective. When the Israeli media asks him about it from time to time he makes the effort to remain diplomatic and calm. But a few months ago, the president addressed the touchy subject on TV and offered a window into his feelings. “Bibi and I were friends like a big brother and his younger brother,” he said. “When he assumed he could treat me like a stranger, as one politician to another—I was very disappointed.”


One of the more crucial current policy disagreements between the two is over the relationship with the United States. As a result, Rivlin had said that the two men have recently stopped holding the routine meetings that Netanyahu held with Rivlin’s predecessor Shimon Peres. “In the last couple of months we didn’t have the chance to meet,” said Rivlin in an interview in September. He explained: “I think we have exhausted the debate on Israel’s relations with the international community, so until this would not be part of the agenda, it seems like we don’t need to have our routine meetings.”

In January of last year, at the height of tensions between Obama and Netanyahu—and with the backdrop of the Iran talks and Netanyahu’s planned speech to the U.S. Congress—Rivlin was invited to meet with Obama. He was visiting New York for an International Holocaust Remembrance Day event, but he declined the invitation, citing a scheduling issue. The White House insisted and even offered to send a helicopter to New York to bring him to the meeting, but Rivlin would not budge.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lights the menorah as First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. President Barack Obama look on during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House Dec. 9, 2015. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lights the menorah as First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. President Barack Obama look on during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House Dec. 9, 2015. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But in Israel there was no question about the president’s position on the prime minister’s handling of the crisis with the United States. On more than one occasion, Rivlin said that “Israel’s foreign policy has three points: the relationship with the U.S., the relationship with the U.S., and the relationship with the U.S.” He had no problem saying in interviews that that is a mantra directed at Netanyahu.

Rivlin’s complaints often directly intersect with those of the White House. Such is the case with Netanyahu’s announcement in November on the appointment of Ran Baratz—a man who called Obama an anti-Semite and said that John Kerry had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old—his new director of public diplomacy. Ten days before the announcement, Baratz posted Rivlin’s photo from his flight to the Czech Republic on Facebook and wrote that his low-cost flight testifies to his irrelevance, joking that Rivlin is such a marginal figure that even ISIS militants wouldn’t want him as a hostage—“just take him.” While Baratz’s confirmation remains in limbo (people close to Netanyahu believe he’s not going to pursue this at the moment), the appointment is nonetheless seen as disrespectful and insulting to Obama, Kerry—and to Rivlin.

With both Obama and Rivlin having major differences with Netanyahu, no wonder the two heads of state looked so fond of one another in December. In the spirit of Hannukah, Rivlin went so far as to tell Obama and the press about the role of the shamash (attendant) candle on the menorah and to compare the American president to that candle, which lights all the rest and “shows the way, the right way, to your people and to the entire world.” Whether it was genuine personal chemistry, or a shared desire for revenge on Netanyahu, the connection between the two presidents is significant in this era of heightened mutual suspicions.


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Yael Even Or is an Israeli journalist and radio producer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @yaelevenor. Omri Nahmias is the political correspondent of Israeli news website Walla. Follow him on Twitter @OmriNahmias.