On the day that President Shimon Peres hosted Pope Francis, the frontrunner to succeed Peres made clear he does not share their vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But in an interview with The Times of Israel, the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin also promised that, if elected president, he would not seek to intervene in the decisions of Israel’s elected politicians on peacemaking or anything else.

Israelis and Palestinians are “destined to live together,” Rivlin told The Times of Israel Monday. But “I’m a utopianist,” he said. “I have a vision that suddenly all the Jewish people [from around the world] will come to live here… And if there were 10 million Jews here, we wouldn’t have to give up on anything.”

Rivlin was speaking to The Times of Israel in a short telephone interview timed to coincide with Wednesday’s Jerusalem Day, which he lamented was no longer a “consensus” day of festivities but, rather, had come to be celebrated “only by kipa-wearing [Orthodox] Israelis.”

Presidential candidate and ex-Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin MK (Likud) in the Knesset this week. (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Presidential candidate and ex-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin MK (Likud) in the Knesset this week. (photo credit: Flash90)

He was reluctant to discuss the June 10 Knesset vote in which he hopes his 119 colleagues will elect him as Israel’s 10th president. “I think I have the support of most of them,” he said, and he stressed that, if elected to succeed Peres, his fellow MKs know that “I won’t intervene in Knesset decisions. [The MKs] will decide Israel’s borders, and its [policies on] peace. The president is a bridge to enable debate, to reduce tensions, to alleviate frictions.”

The presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but some presidents — certainly including Peres — have made no secret of their political and diplomatic preferences while in office. “It’s not for the president to determine the arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Arab world,” Rivlin elaborated, “but to be the bridge between opinions, and to facilitate dialogue and understanding.”

Rivlin, 74, is a father of four, passionate Beitar Jerusalem soccer fan and a vegetarian. He is also a former speaker of the Knesset and cabinet minister who ran unsuccessfully against Peres for the presidency in 2007. Polls suggest he leads the field in the race to be president, and that he’s the most popular candidate among the public, too.

Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2012 ceremony marking Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2012 ceremony marking Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

However, his candidacy has not been endorsed by his party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely reported to be desperate to prevent Rivlin attaining the job, to the extent of vainly attempting to postpone the vote or to abolish the presidency altogether. Hebrew media reports claim this is partly because Rivlin is deeply disliked by Netanyahu’s wife Sara; Knesset insiders suggest Rivlin angered the prime minister by taking independent positions in defiance of Netanyahu’s will, both as speaker and since, including, for instance, working to limit the access of lobbyists in parliament, and voting against the Palestinian prisoner releases in the framework of the recently collapsed peace process.

Speaking the day after Pope Francis had stood in silent prayer at the West Bank security barrier, Rivlin called the pontiff “a good man, open. He has a capacity to understand. He’s not closed-minded or biased against us… He has no hidden agenda.”

The Palestinians, said Rivlin, “imposed upon him” in taking him to the security barrier and as regards other elements of his Bethlehem visit. “He doesn’t know the political significance of every place. He stands where he is asked to stand.” But when Palestinian speakers, including children, made provocative statements against Israel, Rivlin noted, “he responded. He spoke in support of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” It might usefully be highlighted to Francis, said Rivlin, “that those who incited against Israel [during his Bethlehem visit] aren’t exactly happy about the fact of our existence, to put it mildly.”

‘This is our birthplace, but also the birthplace of others from here’

Nonetheless, he stressed, the very fact that Francis had come to Israel, “that he is here, meeting the prime minister and the president and the chief rabbis, shows the de facto and the de jure recognition by the Vatican of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

Rivlin, who was born in Jerusalem, said he himself sees the Jews as “the chosen people who have returned to our land.” Asked for his vision for that land in the future, he said it was “that we [and the Palestinians] are not doomed to live together; it is our destiny to live together. This is our birthplace, but also the birthplace of others from here.”

So how would he resolve the Palestinian conflict? “When I was nine,” he replied, “there were only 300,000 Jews here, and we built a state… Now there are 6 million Jews. If there were 10 million Jews here, we wouldn’t have to give up on anything,” he said, presumably referring to both territory and democratic principles. “If not, well, we have to live together.”

How so? “A confederation,” he suggested, adding “but not [in a situation] in which each side is educated that the other side represents a disaster.”

“But no Palestinian state?” he was asked. “I have a vision that suddenly all the Jewish people will come to live here,” he answered. “That’s utopian. But less utopian than Ben-Gurion’s vision,” which came to fruition with the establishment of Israel.

Rivlin added: “I know I’m a utopianist. So was [Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev] Jabotinsky. So was [Zionist visionary Theodor] Herzl. What did he say? ‘If you wish it, it is no dream.'”

The Likud veteran added that Jerusalem “is a microcosm of whether we can live together, Jews and Arabs.” He said he was saddened that the annual Jerusalem Day holiday, marking Israel’s reunification of the city under its control after the 1967 Six Day War, “has become characterized by celebrations by kipa-wearers only. In 1967, when the city was reunited, the joy was everyone’s. In 1983, mayor Teddy Kollek had 15,000 Arabs who voted for him. Even though we were the opposition, I congratulated him for unifying Jerusalem.” But since then, what was once consensus — extending far enough into the left of the political spectrum to include Meretz until 1979, he said — had collapsed.

“I pray that we learn to live together,” Rivlin concluded. “That Jerusalem is one, with law and order.” And, he said again, “that Jews and Arabs understand that we are not doomed to live together, we are destined to live together.”