Netanyahu, Rivlin urge ‘unity’ at memorial service for Altalena victims

President: ‘We must not allow divisive discourse to wreck every green pasture. No one knows this better than the prime minister’

President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony in memory of Israeli soldiers killed in the First Lebanon War in Jerusalem on June 18, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)
President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony in memory of Israeli soldiers killed in the First Lebanon War in Jerusalem on June 18, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

Both President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged “unity” and civil political discourse at a memorial ceremony on Tuesday for the victims of the ship Altalena, sunk during the War of Independence amid infighting among Jewish military groups.

Netanyahu said: “We are all committed to prevent a war amongst brothers. A difference of opinion is an inseparable part of democracy.

“Democracy is a unity of the people. Unity is not uniformity, but when we argue we must remember that we are brothers. We are one people, there is no other.”

Rivlin said the ceremony served as a reminder “that the greatest threat to our country, even 70 years after the nation’s founding, lies within us.”

He warned that “Altalenic discourse rules Israel. An accusatory discourse that is at times superficial and violent. Even the word ‘unity,’ tossed into the air, seems meaningless and fades quickly in the context of the general atmosphere.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony in memory of Israeli presidents and prime ministers who passed away at the president residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Each tribe wishes for only its story to be told, for its truth to win out. Instead of striving for a shared framework, right and left seek to erase the other side’s story,” he said. “We must not allow divisive discourse to continue to wreck every green pasture.”

He added, in possible criticism of Netanyahu: “No one knows this better than the prime minister.”

Netanyahu has often been accused of divisive discourse. In recent months, as his legal troubles have grown, he has repeatedly claimed that the charges against him are part of a left-wing plot to bring him down, though he has provided no evidence for this.

“If we do not safeguard the fabric that binds us, we’ll fall into the abyss of hate that has destroyed our national home more than once,” Rivlin said.

The Altalena ship, carrying a large consignment of arms and weapons, was brought to Israel by Menachem Begin’s Irgun militia during the country’s War of Independence, in June 1948.

However, the nascent government of David Ben-Gurion, at bitter odds with Begin, demanded that the ship and its supplies be turned over to the newly formed Israel Defense Forces.

As the ship reached the coast and then ran aground, a standoff ensued that ended in a shootout between Irgun members aboard and IDF soldiers on the shore, who were ordered to destroy the vessel. The ship was set ablaze by fire from cannon used by the forces on the shore under the command of a young Yitzhak Rabin, later the IDF chief of General Staff and prime minister.

June 22, 1948, the ship Altalena burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

Sixteen Irgun members and three IDF soldiers died in the incident, and the ship’s cargo was lost.

The affair later became a rallying cry for Israel’s right.

“If there is heroism in the Altalena affair…Menachem Begin is the hero,” Rivlin said. “Begin is a symbol and a shining example that even after blood has been spilled, one can do everything to maintain our unity.”

Netanyahu meanwhile said that for decades the narrative of “one camp was pushed aside” in the retelling of the affair.

“History was written and sometimes rewritten by those who saw themselves as the victors,” he said. “It is only thanks to our actions, those of our government, that the warriors now receive their rightful place in the annals of Israel.”

On Monday Rivlin and Netanyahu appeared to spar over the role of Israel’s judiciary at an event at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, with the president seemingly criticizing Netanyahu’s attitude toward the courts.

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