Reuven Rivlin: the affable face of Israel's far right

Jerusalem (AFP) - Reuven Rivlin, who was sworn in on Thursday as Israel's 10th president, is a far-right hawk with a quirky sense of humour who is known as the guard-dog of democracy.

Popular and affable, 74-year-old "Ruby" Rivlin was a veteran member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party and a former parliament speaker.

He has made no secret of his vision of a Greater Israel encompassing all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

But during his tenure as speaker, he also earned a reputation as a fierce defender of democracy, winning him support from the left and even Israel's Arab minority.

Considered to be among the Likud's most hawkish members, Rivlin has never hidden his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and is a staunch backer of Jewish settlements.

"Rivlin won't be the State of Israel's president, but Greater Israel's president," wrote commentator Ari Shavit in Haaretz newspaper about the largely ceremonial post.

"He will exploit the presidential institution to advance the West Bank settlement project, which he worships, and the one-state solution he believes in," he wrote.

Rivlin, a former military intelligence officer, was quoted in 2010 as saying he would "rather accept Palestinians as Israeli citizens than divide Israel and the West Bank in a future two-state peace solution".

He also opposed Israel's 2005 withdrawal of all settlers and troops from Gaza.

But his jocular approach, coupled with a determined stance on democratic and human rights, has won him plaudits and respect from across the political spectrum.

Indeed, it is his views on other issues that have garnered him support from the left and even the Arab minority, which makes up one fifth of Israel's population.

- Hawk with a heart -

The portly bespectacled politician began his political career in the Knesset, or parliament, in 1988 when he won a seat with Likud.

He has held the post of speaker twice -- from 2003 to 2006, and again from 2009 to 2013.

In 2009, immediately after being reelected, his first official visit was to the Arab Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm.

A year later, he shunned rightwing calls to sack an Arab Israeli MP who participated in an ill-fated pro-Palestinian flotilla that tried to run Israel's blockade on Gaza.

"For years, Rivlin has preached the need for cooperation between Jews and Arabs. And as Knesset speaker, he extended a hand to the Arab factions in sharp contrast to his colleagues on the right," an editorial in Haaretz said.

And in 2011, he stood against moves to introduce legislation to curb foreign funding of leftwing NGOs.

A year later, he lashed out at Likud MP Miri Regev when she described illegal African immigrants as a "cancer".

"He has always maintained independent views, even in the face of strong prime ministers like Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, and that is an important trait for a president," Haaretz wrote.

It was as speaker that he won widespread respect, with his long experience in political arbitration setting him above the fray in a key asset for the presidency.

"Rivlin matured from a wannabe-comedian who didn't seem to take his job seriously into one of the most respected and beloved politicians in Israel," Haaretz wrote last year as speculation over the future of the presidency took hold.

In the world of "Eretz Nehederet" -- an Israeli satire similar to Britain's Spitting Image -- Rivlin is portrayed as a larger-than-life politician with a permanent grin who is given over to fits of uncontrollable laughter.

- Clash with Netanyahu -

Initially favoured as the clear front-runner to succeed 90-year-old Shimon Peres, Rivlin's bid for the presidency was complicated by a bitter, personal spat with Netanyahu whose frantic efforts to find an alternative candidate were plastered all over the press.

Only at the 11th hour, after his efforts failed, did Netanyahu offer his begrudging support.

Commentators say Netanyahu's loathing of Rivlin was due to his failure to afford the prime minister special treatment at the Knesset podium.

"In his own special way, Rivlin knew how to capture the hearts of the members of parliament and of the public at large, but in the process he earned Netanyahu’s hostility," Haaretz said.