Israel’s conflicted president wrestles with democracy, Jewish historical rights
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Israel’s conflicted president wrestles with democracy, Jewish historical rights

On Independence Day, Rivlin grapples with his clashing convictions that ‘Zion belongs to the Jewish people,’ and that Jews and Arabs are destined to share the holy land

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Reuven Rivlin has been something of a revelation as president. In the nine months since he succeeded the ostensibly irreplaceable Shimon Peres, the veteran former Knesset speaker, 75, has underlined the veracity of all those quotes about no man being indispensable. We thought Rivlin a hardline Likud MK who opposed Palestinian statehood; turns out he’s a feisty democrat full of empathy for Israel’s marginalized Arab community, torn between his connection to the Land of Israel and his recognition of the imperative for Jews and Muslims to find a way to live together in peace.

Shortly before Israel’s Independence Day, when Rivlin hosted a group of English-speaking journalists at Beit Hanassi, another gulf emerged — between the tight, nuanced polish of his scripted English speeches and the passionate meanderings of his extemporaneous use of the language. The president was good-natured, patient and generous with his time — he spoke for a full hour-and-a-half — loquaciously answering questions that ranged from the pointed to the inane (including several variants of ‘What’s the best thing about your new job?’).

Where the Jerusalem-born 10th president was most heartfelt and affecting was in describing his love for this land, its people, and the Zionism that built a thriving state. “I was born nine years before the Israeli flag went up and the British flag went down,” Rivlin said at the very start of the conversation. “I don’t take Israel for granted… We’re still trying to convince everyone that Israel is a fact.”

Where he was most obviously conflicted was in reconciling that historic link to Biblical Israel with the rights of the non-Jews who live between the river and the sea. “It’s a problem,” he said more than once.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks with outgoing president, Shimon Peres, after being sworn in as the tenth president of Israel in a ceremony at the Knesset Plenum on Thursday, July 24, 2014. Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Reuven Rivlin speaks with outgoing president, Shimon Peres, after being sworn in as the 10th president of Israel in a ceremony at the Knesset Plenum on Thursday, July 24, 2014. Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

What does President Rivlin stand for? What are his views on the key challenges facing the country as it turns 67? Where will he attempt to make as much impact as the largely ceremonial office of president will allow? What follows is an attempt to distill the essence of what he had to say, heavily edited and in some cases paraphrased from his lengthy answers.

Rivlin on relations between Jews and Muslims: Historically, the Jews never had any kind of problem with Shia Islam. The Jews and the Shia lived together very well… We have no war with Islam. No one in Israel thinks that. There are fundamentalists in every religion….

We are sitting on the edge of the volcano (in terms of the dangers of religious extremism): The Temple Mount is considered by the Muslims to be very important. We have to respect that… But we have to let them understand that this is something very holy to us.

We, the Jews, have no other choice but to stick to the idea that we have returned to our homeland, not as compensation for the Holocaust, but as a people who are not only a religion, but are also a nation.

Rivlin on the threat posed by Iran: Iran says Israel should be brought to an end. Iran is on the threshold of the possibility of having a nuclear weapon… Unfortunately, the whole world is looking for ways to reach understandings with the Iranians… The whole world — and especially the American president — is trying to tell us that we have to find a new arrangement with Iran… They don’t get it, that Iran is trying to gain influence all over the region: Hezbollah, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan…

Rivlin on ties with the United States: America is very important to the existence of Israel and the future of Israel, and to the capacity to keep the whole free world safe from danger. We need to maintain bipartisan American support for Israel.

Rivlin on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: We have to negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas. I call on him to come and start and negotiate, and bring an end to the tragedy that all of us are living in the region… I have known Abbas for the past 25 years… We are not doomed to live together; it is our destiny to live together. We can bridge the gaps between us… It could be a reality, not only a dream… It’s in all of our interests…

But there are many Palestinians who believe that there is no way to recognize Israel as a Jewish state… There are many who believe that there is no way to recognize Israel as a state at all… Their demand for the right of return for refugees threatens the very existence of Israel, because they believe that they have more than 20 million refugees.

President Reuven Rivlin opens the new academic year at the Da'at school, near the border with Gaza, on September 1, 2014.  (photo credit: Mark Neyman /GPO/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin opens the new academic year at the Da’at school, near the border with Gaza, on September 1, 2014. (photo credit: Mark Neyman /GPO/Flash90)

Terrorists are trying to bring our dream and our country to an end. They see themselves as our enemies and see their role as to bring an end to the state of Israel…. In Gaza, 1.5 million Palestinians were held hostage by Hamas. … We did not declare war on them. They declared war on us…

The Jewish people have no other state to live in. And at the same time, I cannot live in a Jewish state without it being democratic. Now the conflict, for me, is that I subscribe to the ideology that Zion belongs to all of us, Zion belongs to the Jewish people…

Maybe we can live in a federation… We will not have peace unless we have open borders… I know we have problems and we have to solve them…

President REuven Rivlin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior politicians at the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior politicians at the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

We are not yet isolated but we could face isolation by many of our friends, including the Europeans and the Americans. The new government has to take that into consideration in order to avoid it. People have to understand that not everything is up to us… We have to talk to our friends.

In Israel, go into a Jewish kindergarten and ask what is evil, and they will say: Arabs. Go into a Palestinian or an Arab kindergarten and ask the children what is evil, and they will say Jews and Israeli soldiers. That is horrible. Impossible

Rivlin on his feelings for Israel: For 2,000 years we dreamed of coming back… Israel is not an outcome of, or compensation for, the Holocaust…

When I was born, there were 200,000 Jews in British mandate Palestine. By the time I was 9, with the foundation of the state, there were 700,000. By 2000 I had hoped there would be 2 million. Thank God, it was six million. Now it’s 6.5 million. Hopefully another million will come in the next decade…

People should come not because of danger — although Israel is also a safe haven — but because this is our homeland, fatherland, promised land. I would like every Jew to come to Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin welcomes new immigrants from the US and Canada at Ben Gurion Airport, August 12, 2014. The arrivals, on a Nefesh B'Nefesh 'Soldiers Flight', were  set to join the Israel Defense Forces. (Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/ FLASH90)
President Reuven Rivlin welcomes new immigrants from the US and Canada at Ben Gurion Airport, August 12, 2014. The arrivals, on a Nefesh B’Nefesh ‘Soldiers Flight,’ were set to join the Israel Defense Forces. (Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/ FLASH90)

Rivlin on relations with Israeli Arabs and whether Israeli Arab MKs could and should be part of the government: Israeli citizens are Israeli citizens. They have the right to become members of the Knesset, and I am very proud that 16 members of the new Knesset are non-Jews — 11 Muslims, three Druse and two Christians… I was a minister in the first Israeli government that included an Arab minister. I was very proud of that, because I believe that we can show that there is no gap between being a Jewish and a democratic state…

They have problems in the Israeli Arab community and they know that they have problems. Some of them have a sort of a conflict between loyalty to the State of Israel and loyalty to the people… It’s kind of my idea that they eventually have to recognize something that they won’t accept for the time being: that the land of Israel is the fatherland of the Jewish people…, it is my promised land. There is a conflict in the Middle East between two peoples. Both of them are right, from their point of view.

But we, the Jews, have no other choice but to stick to the idea that we have returned to our homeland, not as compensation for the Holocaust, but as a people who are not only a religion, but are also a nation…

President Reuven Rivlin shake hands with the head of the Central Elections Committee, Judge Salim Joubran, during a ceremony marking the delivery of the official results of the March 17 elections for the 20th Knesset, March 25, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin shakes hands with the head of the Central Elections Committee, Judge Salim Joubran, during a ceremony marking the delivery of the official results of the March 17 elections for the 20th Knesset, March 25, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The challenge is building confidence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Salim Joubran, an Arab judge, ran the last elections. He made crucial decisions. I am very proud of that as a democrat and very proud as a Jew.

Building confidence between the two communities will take time, because the extremists from both sides are using the hatred between the two peoples for political gain… But we are on the right track… We are living together.

While some Jews in the Knesset thought that raising the threshold in the last elections might get rid of the Arab parties, the decision wound up unifying the Arab parties. It turned out that the only people in the world who can unify Arab politicians are the Jews.

Rivlin on the Armenian genocide: I was the first president to speak about this at the United Nations… There is a saying that the Nazis used the Armenian genocide as something that gave them permission to bring the Holocaust into reality, according to their belief that they have to discriminate against the Jewish people. ‘Never again’ belongs to every one of you, all the nations. We cannot allow something like that to happen… We cannot allow any kind of racism, any kind of anti-Semitism, any opportunity of acting in wars that can be defined as genocide. This is very obvious… I congratulate the pope on what he said [in recognition of the Armenian genocide]… The words ‘Never again’ have to mean something.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks to the United Nations General Assembly, during a ceremony to mark International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, January 28, 2015. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks to the United Nations General Assembly, during a ceremony to mark International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, January 28, 2015. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)

Rivlin on threats to Israeli democracy: In visiting Israeli schools, when you hear kids say, ‘A Jewish democratic state is only for Jewish Israelis,’ it’s very dangerous… There is no contradiction between Jewish ideas and democratic ideas. In Israel, go into a Jewish kindergarten and ask what is evil, and they will say: Arabs. Go into a Palestinian or an Arab kindergarten and ask the children what is evil, and they will say Jews and Israeli soldiers. That is horrible. Impossible.

Rivlin on the influence of the Diaspora on Israeli election campaigns: It’s a free world… But it’s the people of Israel who have to decide on their future, and they are deciding. J Street tried to help… People abroad can be involved. But they don’t always have the effect they intended.

The young Reuven (right), with his father Joseph and brother Eliezer (photo credit: Courtesy: Beit Hanassi)
The young Reuven (right), with his father Joseph and brother Eliezer (photo credit: Courtesy: Beit Hanassi)

The people of Israel are much too wise to be swayed by outside influence. They know what they want.

Rivlin on Reform Judaism: I grew up an Orthodox Jerusalemite. If I’d been brought up in Boston or New York, I might prefer to have my wife sitting next to me in the synagogue. The Knesset adopted the position that, for purposes of citizenship, conversion to Judaism in Israel has to be according to the Halacha. This is because of political power… If two million Reform Jews move to Israel, the law could be changed. Halacha cannot be changed, but Israeli law can be.”

Rivlin’s Independence Day message: People of Israel, be proud of the flag. Don’t take this country for granted. We have to appreciate our ability to live in the independent state of the Jewish people.

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