Rivlin: Abbas speech could restore Israel-PA trust

Addressing Jewish journalists, president-elect reserves ‘right to choose my own faith,’ but insists his door will be open to all

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

President-elect Reuven Rivlin speaks during the Finance Committee meeting during which members of Knesset bid him farewell as a Knesset member, on June 23, 2014. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
President-elect Reuven Rivlin speaks during the Finance Committee meeting during which members of Knesset bid him farewell as a Knesset member, on June 23, 2014. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for the immediate release of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers opened the window for an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, President-elect Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday, calling for “direct communication” between Jerusalem and Ramallah to foster a better understanding of each other’s position.

Stopping short of calling for a peace agreement that would establish a Palestinian state, Rivlin — who made clear to The Times of Israel last month that he does not support Palestinian statehood — advocated for Arab-Jewish coexistence, expressing hope for “some sort of understanding.”

“I see his appeal as an opportunity to restore trust between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, if it could ever happen,” Rivlin said about Abbas’s June 18 speech in Saudi Arabia. Speaking in English to international Jewish journalists in Jerusalem, the incoming president added: “We used to say we need CBMs, confidence-building measures, and I suppose that [Abbas’s] words were something that could bring us to create any kind of trust between the two people.”

Rivlin said he was aware that other Palestinian leaders have subsequently questioned whether Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel had really been kidnapped. “Nevertheless,” Rivlin said of Abbas’s speech, “I really believe it means something.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially reacted coldly to Abbas’s statement, but this week said several times that it was important and appreciated. Still, Netanyahu added, if Abbas were truly opposed to terrorism and interested in peace with Israel, he would dismantle his unity government with Hamas.

Building trust between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, not merely between their leaders, is essential, Rivlin said Wednesday, in his first public speech held in English since he was elected on June 10. “If we are to put to an end the tragedy that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such trust requires constant communication and mutual understanding in order to breach the gap that for decades — more than 150 years — seem unbridgeable.”

Avoiding any reference to the collapsed peace process or concrete Israeli polices vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Rivlin said that Jews and Arabs need to realize they are destined to coexist together on this piece of land. “We can’t live without the belief that we can get to a sort of understanding. Whether we will it or not, we share the same geographic region. We breathe the same air, we drink the same water.”

Rivlin, who is to succeed President Shimon Peres late next month, said that he has met with Abbas several times and that he will meet the PA leader again once he is sworn in as president. While they have “a lot of differences of opinion” that appear impossible to bridge, it is their “duty to do so, to find a way in order to at least understand the position of the other side,” the president-elect said. Both he and Abbas understand how crucial “direct communication” is for life in the Middle East.

Speaking at the closing panel of the Jewish Media Summit in the capital, Rivlin also indirectly addressed his controversial statements about Reform Judaism.

“I will never reject someone based on their worldview and I will fight for their right to express it,” he said. “Even as president-elect I maintain the right to choose my own faith, but I will insist that the presidential home be open to anyone who wishes to engage in a dialogue with me, be they Jewish — of one religious movement or another — Arab, residents of Israel or abroad, rich or poor, newcomers or veterans.”

In 1989, Rivlin visited a Reform synagogue and said he was stunned at how different the services was from what he was used to. “This is idol worship and not Judaism,” he said in a newspaper interview at the time. “Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”

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