With folksy charm, 'Ruvi' confronts Israel vote deadlock

Jerusalem (AFP) –


With his easy smile and grandfatherly demeanour, Reuven Rivlin can seem a perfect fit for the mainly ceremonial role of Israeli president, but his job has suddenly turned more challenging.

The 80-year-old has found himself involved in efforts to extricate the country from political deadlock following a September 17 election.

Those polls, the second since April, left neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his challenger Benny Gantz with a clear path to a majority coalition.

Netanyahu informed Rivlin on Monday he cannot form a government, and the president now plans to ask Gantz to try.

Gantz too will face long odds, and Rivlin, a popular ex-speaker of parliament nicknamed "Ruvi", has made clear he will do everything in his power to prevent a third election.

He will have to do so while managing an uneasy relationship with Netanyahu, whom Rivlin has known since the prime minister was a young child.

"There are some moments in the life of a people when the president is required, as part of carrying out his official role, to intervene," Rivlin said at parliament's October 3 swearing in.

"To guide and calibrate the system which is struggling to get back on track."

Rivlin has set out a compromise that could see Netanyahu become premier first in a rotation, but step aside later to combat corruption charges if indicted as expected.

His efforts have so far failed, and the former lawyer with long experience in Israeli politics may have to employ all his folksy charm to resolve the stalemate.

"Despite everything that was said about their outright hostility, Rivlin behaved as a true gentleman by proposing an agreement acceptable by the two parties," Denis Charbit, political science professor at the Open University of Israel, said of the president's relationship with Netanyahu.

Rivlin cites a similar stalemate in 1984 that led to a unity government as precedent.

Charbit and others, however, say it is the first time an Israeli president faces a situation as seemingly intractable as this one.

- Football fan -

Rivlin was born in Jerusalem under what was then British-mandate Palestine and speaks Arabic in addition to Hebrew.

His academic father is considered to have authored the first Hebrew edition of the Koran.

The scion of a prominent family, Rivlin served as an intelligence officer in Israel's military.

He has been a vegetarian for many years for reasons of conscience.

The portly and bespectacled father of four is known for his love of football and was once chairman of the Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem.

He made his way into politics as a follower of the right-wing ideology of Zeev Jabotinsky, whose thinking formed the basis of Israel's Likud party.

He first won a seat in the Knesset, or parliament, in 1988 with Likud.

Years later, he held the post of speaker twice -- from 2003 to 2006, and again from 2009 to 2013.

He won widespread respect as speaker, but also clashed with Netanyahu.

Rivlin's ultimately successful bid for the presidency in 2014 was complicated by a bitter spat with Netanyahu, who sought an alternative candidate.

A number of commentators said Netanyahu's loathing of Rivlin was due to his refusal to bend to his will.

- 'Rivlin's duty' -

Rivlin is unmistakably right-wing and has made no secret of his vision of a Greater Israel encompassing all territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean -- ruling out the creation of a Palestinian state.

In recent years, he has appeared to ease his stance somewhat, speaking of a confederation between Israel and the Palestinians.

He has built a reputation within Israel's turbulent political scene as a voice of reason with a quirky sense of humour, winning him plaudits and respect.

In June, the death of his wife of nearly five decades led to an outpouring of support -- and a call from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

He has been careful to avoid politics since becoming president, though he has occasionally let frustration with some of Netanyahu's policies and comments show.

Rivlin has signalled strong disagreement with rhetoric from Netanyahu many see as demonising Arab Israelis, who make up around 20 percent of the Jewish state's population.

With Netanyahu facing possible corruption charges in the weeks ahead, some predict his days as prime minister could be numbered, but Rivlin has moved carefully.

"Rivlin's duty is to end the Netanyahu era with as little national trauma as possible," journalist and author Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Israel's Haaretz newspaper.