On Israel’s President Rivlin–An Improvement, But Still Terrible

Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, made waves recently with his appraisal of the continued rise of racism in Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported on a conference entitled, in part, “Acceptance of the Other,” and which took place, ironically, on a Jabotinsky Street (named after the openly fascist Jewish supremacist who wrote openly about colonizing and excluding the native Arab population of Israel from any state-founding projects). Rivlin’s comments were reported as follows:

The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment, President Reuven Rivlin said at the opening session on Sunday of a conference on From Hatred of the Stranger to Acceptance of the Other. …

Rivlin wondered aloud whether Jews and Arabs had abandoned the secret of dialogue. With regard to Jews he said: “I’m not asking if they’ve forgotten how to be Jews, but if they’ve forgotten how to be decent human beings. Have they forgotten how to converse?”

The longtime analyst of the Israel-Palestine Conflict Mitchell Plitnick has written a useful summary description of Israel’s new president. While still adhering to illegal and intolerable policies, Rivlin’s willingness to acknowledge some degree of Palestinian humanity is refreshing.

Here is Plitnick, describing both the good and the bad in Rivlin:

Rivlin opposes a Palestinian state and a two-state solution. He supports settlement activity. He believes Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. Yet he has also spoken out more forcefully than most Israeli politicians against what he himself has described as widespread “racism and arrogance” that Arabs encounter from Jews in Israel. He believes that Arabs should have the same rights under the law as Jews, and does not pretend that they do. He acknowledges the Arab connection to the land and strongly believes that Arabs are an indelible part of Israeli society that is being willfully marginalized, something that must be reversed. He believes in freedom of speech and that this freedom very much includes Palestinian views, as he demonstrated when he defended MK Hanan Zouabi from one of the many attempts by other Knesset members to boot her from office and even have her brought up on criminal charges.

Plitnick also offers useful contextualization for situating Rivlin in the recent generations of Israeli politicians, starting with the obvious fact that no party in Israel has been interested in permitting Palestinian statehood under any conditions or negotiating a peace deal. While Israeli domestic propaganda holds that the Labor party has long sought some kind of peace deal, this is a fairy tale. In reality, as Plitnick describes,

neither Labor nor Kadima was ever really serious about a two-state solution. Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” had the capital of Palestine being in Abu Dis, which they could rename Al Quds (the Arabic name of Jerusalem) if they wished, and offered next to nothing on refugees, while dividing the West Bank into three main Palestinian cantons barely connected by thin strips of territory. That was Labor’s big offer.

Kadima’s claims are a bit stronger, but still thin. Ariel Sharon, of course, formed Kadima in order to pursue his Gaza “disengagement” policy, in order, as Dov Weisglass so helpfully told us, to freeze the peace process regarding all the issues. His successor, Ehud Olmert, claims to have made a much stronger offer, which was thwarted by a combination of Abbas’ foot-dragging and the efforts of his own lead ministers, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, undermining his work.

What we know for certain is that current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been, by far, the most blatantly rejectionist of all Israeli Prime Ministers in the past twenty years, but all of them have seemed, to put it mildly, less than eager to strike a deal that could meet he bare minimum of Palestinian demands. And thus, the Oslo process collapsed.

Reuven Rivlin, a longtime leader of Likud politics was the Speaker of the Knesset and is now President of Israel. He had fallen out of favor in Likud because of his views on Palestinians, both in Israel and under the occupation. Netanyahu tried to prevent him from becoming president, despite the fact that the office is largely ceremonial. It is a platform from which ideas can be disseminated and injected powerfully into the public discourse in Israel. And Rivlin is using it.

[Rivlin’s] clear acknowledgment of the Kafr Kassem massacre of 1956, where 47 Arabs were slaughtered because they broke the curfew imposed on that village under Israel’s martial law. “Israel,” Rivlin said,  “must “look straight at what happened in the Kafr Qasem massacre and teach all future generations about it…A serious crime was committed here and needs to be repaired,” It seems like a small thing, but such a clear and unqualified admission from an Israeli leader is most unusual. It was not a tragedy or a symptom of a cycle of violence. It was a crime.

That the Palestinians’ humanity can get some form of acknowledgment by a Jewish Israeli politician is a welcome sign. That Rivlin’s policy positions continue to reflect an utter disregard for Palestinians’ rights–as well as for established international law–remains entirely unacceptable.

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