JERUSALEM–There it is, in perfect Arabic calligraphy: “Reuven Rivlin,” name of the President of the State of Israel, and beneath that, as is Rivlin’s habit, also in handwriting, the Hebrew word “Jerusalem.”
For months, Israel has been rife with rumors about Rivlin’s intention to sign the Nation-State Law, a controversial measure derogating the official status of the Arabic language in Israel and elevating the status of Jewish-only communities.
Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, an old friend of the president, told The Daily Beast that in a meeting last July, less than two weeks after the measure passed Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, he asked Rivlin,
“Will you sign a law like that?”
Rivlin had been so perturbed about the possibility of the law’s passage that on July 10 he had taken the unprecedented step of sending a letter to the Knesset’s Law and Constitution Committee, warning that the bill could “support discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin.”
The Israeli presidency is a largely symbolic post. Presidents almost never speak out on matters under parliamentary debate.
But after a close election, the president becomes, if only for a day, the most important man in Israel.
Last month, as Israel approached the end of a campaign full of incitement and hurled smears, in which Netanyahu continually warned Israelis that his opponent, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, will ally with “the Arabs,” Rivlin appeared to lose patience.
Without uttering Netanyahu’s name, Rivlin denounced “entirely unacceptable remarks about the Arab citizens of Israel.”
“There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters,” Rivlin said at a Jerusalem conference marking 40 years since the signing of Israeli-Egyptian peace. “We are all equal in the voting booth. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel.”
The president is tasked with choosing who will form Israel's next government.
“You know the meaning of the president not signing a law?” Rivlin answered Abu Rass.
“I’d have to resign. But I promise you that when the law comes to my desk and I have to sign it, I’ll sign it in Arabic, and that says everything.”
The president’s historic act is being reported here for the first time.
Rivlin's signature is not a small, local story. His deed, as president of Israel, is arguably as significant as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern's decision to wear a head scarf when she comforted Muslim mourners after the mosque attacks.
Rivlin, the scion of one of Jerusalem’s most renowned families, is no left-winger.
In fact, years before Netanyahu’s Hail Mary promise of annexation of the West Bank to Israel, Rivlin was championing a one-state vision of the Greater Land of Israel.
But in ways large and small, he has made equality and the defense of Arabs and Islamic culture his signature issue.
When Rivlin, a veteran legislator, was elected Speaker of the Knesset in March 1999, he chose to make his first official visit to the Arab-Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm, in the southern Galilee.
In January 2015, when addressing the United Nations General Assembly ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rivlin said that “neither the West, nor the Christians nor the Jews are at war with Islam.”
“Right now,” he said, “Islam encompasses, under its enormous wings, victims of persecution and of terrorism, while at the same time it also serves as the banner of the attackers.”
When George Amira, an 11-year-old Tel Aviv schoolboy, posted a video about the ways he was being bullied in school, Rivlin invited him to the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem to film a response clip showing up his tormentors.
It was no surprise that Rivlin opposed the Nation-State law, but it is a remarkable coincidence that Netanyahu and Rivlin, Israel’s Trump and McCain, find themselves serving as prime minister and president today.
The two grew up as university brats in the same cauldron of Jerusalem's revisionist Likud youth, Netanyahu, 69, the son of a man who viewed Arabs as uncultured natives and Rivlin, 79, the son of one of the Middle East's greatest scholars of Islamic culture.
Rivlin’s father, Professor Yosef Yoel Rivlin, a devoted Arabist, taught several generations of scholars at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Oriental Studies, and translated the Quran and a 32-volume edition of One Thousand and One Nights from Arabic to Hebrew.
Though members of the same Likud party, the two men rarely see eye-to-eye, and represent opposing visions of Israel.
Brig. Gen. (ret) Amal Asad, who has led the massive social protests that erupted after passage of the Nation-State Law, said that, “From day one, President Rivlin has symbolized the real Israeli, the ultimate Israeli for whom love of the country and its people--all its people--are his lodestar. I’ve known him for years. He is a man who unified people, without regard to color, fath, or orientation.”
And whereas few Israelis have affection for Netanyahu--even his supporters view him with a certain prideful dread--Rivlin is a deeply beloved figure across the board.
Informed of Rivlin’s signature, Moshe Shahal, a former minister of police and great man of the rival Labor Party, who served for decades alongside Rivlin, said, “He stands out as a man who represents respect among citizens and the rule of law. I am not surprised.”
The Likud is flooding Israelis with election-day warnings that, “President Rivlin will ask the party with the most votes to form the next government and Israel needs that to be Likud and Netanyahu--don’t be fooled by the media into thinking Likud and Netanyahu don’t need your help!”
Dan Meridor, a former minister of justice who grew up in the same Jerusalem environment as Netanyahu and Rivlin and has known the president for most of his 71 years, refused to speak of his old friend except to say, “He will perform his duties to the absolute letter of the law. Of that I have no doubt.”
Today’s election turns on a question of two very different conceptions of the character of the State of Israel.