President steps into row between PM and actress Rotem Sela

There are no second-class citizens, Rivlin says, in implicit rebuke of Netanyahu

Without mentioning PM, president slams ‘unacceptable remarks’ about Arabs, stresses that ‘the State of Israel has complete equality of rights for all its citizens’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin addressing a conference at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, March 11, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin addressing a conference at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, March 11, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday appeared to launch a harsh attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his recent statement about Arab Israelis, saying that all citizens enjoy full equality before the law.

In a speech at a Jerusalem conference about Egyptian-Israel peace, Rivlin also appeared to reprise his criticism of the controversial nation-state law passed last summer by Netanyahu and his allies.

“We must get to the point where we are truly able to say: No more war and bloodshed between Israelis and Arabs. Between Israel and all Arabs,” Rivlin said.

“I refused and refuse to believe that there are political parties that have surrendered the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, state. Those who believe that the State of Israel must be Jewish and democratic in the full sense of the word must remember that the State of Israel has complete equality of rights for all its citizens,” he said to loud applause from the audience.

The current election campaign has political thinking turned “on its head,” the president argued, condemning the “entirely unacceptable remarks about the Arab citizens of Israel” made by some politicians.

Rivlin did not mention any names, but he was likely referring to right-wing parties, including Netanyahu’s Likud, that have repeatedly accused their center-left rivals of planning to rely on Arab parties in their future government coalition.

“There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters,” Rivlin said. “We are all equal in the voting booth. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel. One hundred and twenty Knesset members cannot change its character as a Jewish state; and 120 MKs won’t be able to change its democratic character.”

The president’s comments, delivered at a Hebrew University conference marking the upcoming 40th anniversary of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, could be understood as a criticism of the nation-state law, which was passed in July but has again been making headlines in recent days.

The discussion over the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People was rekindled over the weekend after model and actress Rotem Sela blasted Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) for claiming that Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White party wants to establish a government with the help of Arab parties.

TV host, model and actress Rotem Sela. (CC-BY-SA-4.0 דבש סדן/Wikipedia)

“What is the problem with the Arabs???” Sela wrote on her Instagram account. “Dear god, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal, and that even the Arabs and the Druze and the LGBTs and — shock — the leftists are human.”

Netanyahu unexpectedly responded to her post with “an important correction,” saying that Israel “is not a state of all its citizens” but the nation-state of the Jewish people only.

At Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu brought up the issue once more.

“I would like to clarify a point that, apparently, is not clear to slightly confused people in the Israeli public. Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone,” he declared. “Of course it respects the individual rights of all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

Non-Jews have “national representation” in other states, he went on. “The national representation of the Jewish people is in the State of Israel. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and of it alone.”

The frequent claims that the center-left wants to co-opt the Arab parties into their government has also been criticized by the US-based Anti-Defamation League.

“The role of Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset is increasingly emerging as a key wedge of the current election campaign, with several party leaders and politicians vowing not to include them in any future coalition, while accusing their political foes of a willingness to do so,” said Carole Nuriel, who heads the ADL’s Israel office.

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