In controversial appearance at Haaretz conference, Rivlin defends the IDF

Critics fume at president for attending event, and at organizers for accepting demand by PLO’s Saeb Erekat to remove Israeli flag from stage for his speech

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the Haaretz and New Israel Fund conference in the Roosevelt Hotel, NYC, on December 13, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the Haaretz and New Israel Fund conference in the Roosevelt Hotel, NYC, on December 13, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

In a controversial appearance at a left-wing conference in New York, President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday urged Israelis to “find new diplomatic ways” for keeping the country “strong and safe.”

Speaking at a conference organized by the Haaretz daily and the New Israel Fund, the president also praised Israel’s security services and military.

His appearance at the event prompted criticism from some right-wing quarters in Israel. The organizers of the event were also criticized for removing the Israeli flag from the stage at the request of another speaker, PLO official and former chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“Once in a while the obvious should be said, especially in these days of dangerous terrorism: The IDF does everything in its power to keep the highest standards possible,” Rivlin said, in remarks apparently designed to counter criticism of the IDF by the left-wing group Breaking the Silence, which was also a participant in the conference. “No other army in the world is as moral as the IDF” in the face of persistent terror threats. “For that we are very proud, very proud of them. And really owe them all our support and appreciation.”

“The State of Israel has the duty to defend its people, and this is what the IDF and all our security services are doing,” Rivlin went on. But, he added, “promising that Israel remains strong and safe is not only a military mission. We have to find new diplomatic ways, because finding new diplomatic ways is just as important for our safety and security. And for that we need to think out of the box.”

Also at the conference, America’s UN ambassador Samantha Power criticized Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Both sides were at fault for the impasse in peace talks, she told attendees Sunday. “We are under no illusion that achieving peace is easy – it takes tough choices by both sides. We have not seen sufficient commitment from either side to create conditions for peace.”

The US would not abandon Israel, including at international forums such as the UN, where “Israel hasn’t always been treated fairly,” Power promised. She railed at the “absurdity” of placing Israel as the only state that is a permanent item on the Human Rights Council agenda, “and not Syria, which gasses its citizens.” But, she added, “continued settlement growth raises questions about Israel’s long-term objectives.”

Power called for Israel to answer tough questions being asked by its supporters and to offer concrete policies for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians and establishing a Palestinian state.

Rivlin’s appearance at the conference raised some criticism among the right-wing base that long supported the former Likud lawmaker and Knesset speaker. In particular, critics said the country’s president should not have participated in a conference that included Breaking the Silence, a group that accuses the IDF of war crimes by publishing largely anonymous testimonies.

Dozens of IDF reservists had gathered outside Rivlin’s residence on Saturday to protest his participation in the conference.

Rivlin responded to the criticism on Facebook, saying he would never attend an official Breaking the Silence event, or sit on a panel with its representatives, but indicating that he did not believe the group’s participation in one of the conference’s panels was as reason to avoid the event altogether.

His defense of the IDF in his comments may have been a response to this criticism back home.

Conference organizers at Haaretz also drew fire for agreeing to remove an Israeli flag from the stage during the speech of former Palestinian peace negotiator Erekat, a bitter critic of Israel.

Centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said Monday that the move marked “shows a loss of national pride by the far left in Israel. Imagine the outcry if an Israeli speaker at an international conference in New York had asked to remove the Palestinian flag.”

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat delivers a speech during the Mediterranean Dialogues (MED), a three-day conference on security in the Mediterranean region, on December 11, 2015 in Rome. (AFP PHOTO/ALBERTO PIZZOLI)
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat. (AFP PHOTO/ALBERTO PIZZOLI)

A full-page article in the right-wing Hebrew daily Israel Hayom quoted ministers, including Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, slamming Erekat’s demand to remove the flag, as well as Haaretz’s acquiescence. In the top-selling Yedioth Aharonoth daily, columnist Ben-Dror Yemini said the removal of the national flag “marked the crossing of a red line. It was a surrender by Haaretz, perhaps a willing one, to those who negate the very fact of the Jewish state’s existence.”

Yemini also castigated Rivlin for participating, saying the president “apparently finds it difficult to distinguish between legitimate criticism of the government policy and (the activities of) some of the stars of the conference, who run a campaign of propagandist terror against the state or reject its very existence. When Rivlin participates in a conference where the state flag is removed at the insistence of Erekat, and where one mingles with (musician Roger) Waters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), there’s a problem.”

Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken dismissed the criticism, saying in a tweet that “Rivlin’s office asked to have the flag when he speaks, Erekat’s advisers asked for no Israeli flag behind him when he speaks. Reasonable.”

A cursory review of video footage from the conference shows that the flag was not placed on the stage only for Rivlin. It was there when New Israel Fund leaders Daniel Sokatch and Talia Sasson spoke, as well as Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, Haaretz English Edition editor Charlotte Halle, and even Schocken himself.

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