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Shinewald: The rise of the Israeli president

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Mark Neiman/GPO)

Forget who will be Israel’s next prime minister – the real action lies with its president.

Israel’s presidency has often been a sinecure for politicians whose careers were behind them, but who still craved one last kick at the can, even if it meant assuming an overwhelmingly ceremonial position.

But Israel’s immediate past president, and its current president, completely reinvented the office, giving it new meaning, energy and importance.

First came Shimon Peres, who, upon becoming Israel’s ninth president in 2007, was deeply unpopular. Many assumed making him president was the perfect way to put him out to pasture for good.

But Peres surprised everyone by completely reimagining the presidency – and rehabilitating his own image in the process.

Peres’ key insight was that the president’s almost complete lack of formal power was precisely what made that position so powerful. Freed from the muck of politicking and policymaking, Peres rose above the fray to lead by example.

That’s why Peres’ finest moments came not from his long career at the heart of Israeli politics, but from his short career at its periphery. From scholarly speeches to goofball YouTube videos, Peres became the human face of the Israel we all yearn for – an Israel of dynamism, thoughtfulness and hope.

Many also snickered when Reuven Rivlin succeeded Peres to become Israel’s 10th president in 2014, assuming it represented an undistinguished end to an undistinguished career. But Rivlin picked up on his predecessor’s legacy, transforming his own presidency into a moral compass for Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike.

Rivlin, for instance, doggedly defends minority rights, aggressively condemns racism and energetically champions pluralism. He does not offer platitudes, but urgent, earnest moral leadership.

It helps that Rivlin is no stuffed shirt. A committed vegetarian, he is a dead ringer for Al from Happy Days. He is as comfortable belting out tunes at a Kululam singalong or playing darbukah drums with Arab schoolteachers as he is attending to the more humdrum affairs of state.

Peres and Rivlin each had a secret to their success. In Peres’ case, it was recognizing that the presidency came with a completely untapped reserve of soft power – that persuasive, intangible cousin to the coercive, authoritative and physical hard power.

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In a way, this is not surprising. Israel owes its very existence to hard power. But somewhere along the way, some Israelis forgot just how potent soft power can be. Peres didn’t. He seized the opportunity before him and, in so doing, transformed himself from a marginal Israeli has-been into a global superstar.

Then Rivlin married Peres’ soft power with fundamental virtue. By meaningfully and thoughtfully focusing on tolerance, civility and equality, Rivlin positioned his presidency in contrast to some of the nastier elements in Israel’s sometimes ugly political discourse. And by remaining unflappably jovial, he constantly bolsters his soft power credibility.

Peres came from the left and Rivlin hails from the right, but both earned the respect, and even the devotion, of Israelis from all walks of life – Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, rightists and leftists. The fact that they are both true public servants who will never campaign for office again helps a great deal, too. But fundamentally, it was their refreshed approach to the presidency that enabled them to transcend their own political affiliations and emerge as unifying figures in an otherwise deeply fractured Israeli polity.

And Rivlin adds one more important consideration into the mix: he reminds us that there is no inherent contradiction between being on the Israeli right and being deeply pluralistic, open-minded and liberal.

It’s hard to understate the influence Peres and Rivlin have had on Israeli political culture. Not too long ago, a busy day for the president of Israel may have meant cutting not one but two ribbons. But Peres and Rivlin remind us what Israeli presidents are supposed to be – the incorporeal representation of Israel itself – and these two presidents represent Israel at its best.

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