The role of the Israeli president is largely ceremonial. As Reuven Rivlin departed New York City for Washington on Monday, part of his farewell tour of America, the outgoing head of state might have been expected to simply do some glad-handing and pose for photo opportunities with longtime friends and acquaintances.
Rivlin came to the United States at the invitation of President Joe Biden, who said he wanted to honor Rivlin’s “dedication to the enduring partnership and the close friendship between our two nations.”
Instead, Rivlin became part of a months-long blitz of government, military and intelligence officials looking to persuade the Biden administration on the Iranian issue, and held discussions at the highest levels on deeply political issues like the reconstruction of Gaza and a resetting of ties between the Israeli government and the Democratic Party.
He even brought with him Leah Goldin, the mother of fallen IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, whose remains are being held by the terrorist Hamas organization that runs the Gaza Strip, to make the case to American leadership that Israeli assistance in the reconstruction of Gaza hinges on the return of four Israeli citizens – two dead and two believed to be alive – being held by Hamas. The Americans are reportedly trying to untwine the two issues, fearing Israel’s conditions for reconstruction could bring an end to the tenuous Egyptian-brokered cease-fire reached after last month’s hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Despite the apolitical nature of the office of the presidency, Rivlin’s talks with Biden, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and, later, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, weren’t freelanced and free-wheeling. Rather, the targeted messages were closely coordinated in advance with new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and others. This was a farewell tour, but still had the look and feel of a serious business trip.
Our shared mission crosses the boundaries of parties and governments. Even when leadership changes, our obligation to each other remains
Rivlin began his journey on Sunday with a gathering of American Jewish leaders at the Moise Safra Center in Manhattan. While Lapid was in Rome telling US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that “mistakes were made” under Israel’s previous government and that “Israel’s bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together,” Rivlin repeated the term “bipartisan” three times, with animated emphasis, as he spoke in New York of the need to maintain support for Israel in both political parties in the US. Lapid and many analysts claim that former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prioritized his relations with the Republican Party, alienating Democrats in the process, and Lapid has pledged to repair those ties as foreign minister. For the largely left-leaning American Jewish establishment gathered to fete Rivlin, his words, mirroring those of Israel’s newly-installed government, seemed to be quite welcome.
“Foreign Minister Lapid’s comments when there was a handoff of the ministry was that this is a government that needs to be representative of the entire Jewish people while recognizing some of these issues are very complicated, so we’re very grateful for that kind of perspective,” Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation New York and host for the event, told The Media Line.
It was on to Washington on Monday, as Rivlin sat in the Oval Office for over an hour with Biden, who declared at the outset of the discussion that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”
While Rivlin told reporters that he was pleased with the statement, Israeli officials’ long-stated concerns go beyond the watch of Biden, who, at most, will be president for eight years. The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, to which the US is seeking a return over Israeli objections, contains sunset provisions that would allow Iran nearly unfettered progress of its nuclear weapons program in the years ahead, after it reaps the financial benefits of the lifting of American sanctions that would accompany a return to the deal.
On Monday, Rivlin joined a long list of Israeli officials, such as Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and then-Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, who have trekked to Washington over the last two months to plead the Israeli side. As nuclear accord negotiations between the US and Iran have continued, some analysts wonder whether the discussions involving the Israelis have had any impact at all. The meeting came a day after Biden ordered airstrikes against facilities in Iraq and Syria that are being used by Iranian-backed militia groups targeting US troops and property with drones in Iraq, though the White House noted the timing of the strikes was completely unrelated to Rivlin’s visit.
“The Americans are very much aware of the faults (in the nuclear deal), and they are trying to get every piece of information that we have to find out if this information should concern them or should change their minds. The Americans really take into consideration what Israel knows and what Israel can deliver in terms of information and intelligence,” an Israeli official traveling with the Rivlin delegation told The Media Line.
Indeed, an official involved in the talks noted that Biden allowed and encouraged the meeting with Rivlin to run longer than planned, so that he could hear all of Rivlin’s concerns. The two presidents have known each other since 1971, when Rivlin took Biden on a tour of Jerusalem while Biden was in his first year in Congress.
According to that official, Rivlin also provided Biden with alarming intelligence regarding the continued US drawdown of troops and operations in the Middle East, showing how the policy decisions of Biden and former President Donald Trump have led to a budding relationship between Iran and US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who are hedging their bets should America’s vacating of the region lead to a power vacuum.
Biden was joined in the Oval Office meeting by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the architect of the Iran nuclear accord, along with a host of National Security Council members working on Middle East issues. Rivlin was supported by Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan, Military Secretary Brig. Gen. Alaa Abu Rukun and Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Shulamit Yona Davidovich.
Rivlin told reporters after Monday’s meeting that “things are still far from decided,” in terms of America’s re-entry into the accord.
According to a White House official, Rivlin, who has become a beloved figure on the Israeli left despite his nationalist bent and long-time promotion of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was briefly quizzed on how amenable the new Israeli government would be to advancing a two-state solution – a query that came up later on Capitol Hill during Rivlin’s bipartisan meeting with congressional representatives.
Hours before Rivlin’s visit to the White House, Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is a proponent of declaring Israeli sovereignty over large portions of Palestinian Authority territory, would be issued an invitation to meet with Biden “soon.” Bennett has already declared that his diverse government would not take any dramatic steps with regard to the Palestinians, preferring instead to “shrink” the conflict, in line with American pronouncements of an affinity for each side taking small, confidence-building steps until conditions are riper for substantive talks.
Rivlin pushed Biden instead to expand on the Abraham Accords, a set of normalization agreements that Trump brokered between Israel and Arab and Muslim nations. An Israeli official noted that Rivlin emphasized to Biden Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ low approval ratings, especially compared to those of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, with the context being that peace with the Palestinians is not politically viable and America’s political capital on bringing peace to the region would be better spent elsewhere. Rivlin even hosted UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba in his Washington hotel prior to heading to the White House, spotlighting the success of the Abraham Accords.
Still, a State Department official told The Media Line that the American preference on the matter is to not pursue further normalization agreements at the cost of further isolating Abbas, which would have the effect of further empowering Hamas’ credibility.
While Biden’s warm welcome of Rivlin signaled that the Democratic-led White House is still in Israel’s corner, Rivlin put a further emphasis on restoring a more bipartisan relationship between the Israeli government and the American government by heading to Capitol Hill following his departure from the Oval Office. He was greeted by Pelosi, D-Calif., and met with a bipartisan group, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.; and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who lead the Foreign Affairs subcommittee focusing on the Middle East, also attended, as did Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who leads the House Appropriations Committee’s State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and David Kustoff, R-Tenn., one of two Jewish House Republicans, also entered the meeting.
The previous Israeli government drew the wrath of several left-leaning House and Senate Democrats during last month’s fight with Hamas, while Republicans, who are generally supportive of Israel, have lately been using the legislative process more often to insert the topic of Israel into unrelated legislation to try to paint their Democratic counterparts as being anti-Israel by voting down those amendments and provisions that are not germane to the legislation.
“We are partners. Dear speaker, we are friends – our nations bound together. Friends may have disagreements from time to time. This will never, never endanger our close relationship,” Rivlin said in remarks ahead of the meeting while standing with Pelosi.
“Our shared mission crosses the boundaries of parties and governments. Even when leadership changes, our obligation to each other remains,” he said.
Rivlin flew back to New York on Monday night, then headed to the United Nations headquarters on Tuesday afternoon for a closed meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Again, Goldin was in attendance as Rivlin urged Guterres to apply pressure on Hamas to return the captive Israeli soldiers and citizens being held in Gaza. According to Rivlin’s office, he also stressed that steps taken by the Palestinian Authority against Israel in international forums like the UN and the International Criminal Court perpetuates distrust between the two sides. Additionally, Rivlin called on Guterres to push for the UN to adopt the most widely-recognized international definition of antisemitism, which includes provisions against denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and applying standards to Israel that require of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Rivlin completed the official portion of his trip by hosting a lunch with 20 UN ambassadors, including US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The ambassadors from Bahrain, Morocco and Bhutan accepted Rivlin’s invitation to dine, as Rivlin continued to highlight the success of the Abraham Accords.
Notably, at the outset of his remarks, Rivlin indirectly addressed Abbas, calling him his neighbor and partner, as Rivlin said: “We must forget the past, once and forever. We were not doomed to live together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. We were destined to live together. That is our only hope for ending this conflict. The State of Israel is here to stay, in eternity. Let us build trust between the peoples, let us return to talking about the future and let us aim for a brighter and better future for our peoples.”
It marked the end of a very political trip for what was originally billed as a ceremonial sendoff.
“Israeli politicians generally don’t go away. He (Rivlin) will be an influence, and I’m sure he will play a role. I think he’s tired. He needs a break for a little while. It’s a very demanding job. But, I think right now he wants to move on and he will be a senior statesman. Israel doesn’t have many,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the longtime executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told The Media Line.
The 81-year-old Rivlin leaves office next Wednesday, to be succeeded by Jewish Agency Chairman and former Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.