Israel Is Jewish and Democratic – but Not Just for Jews, President Rivlin Says

Guest speakers at Haaretz Democracy Conference also include Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak

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President Rivlin ay Haaretz Democracy Conference, March 29, 2019
President Rivlin ay Haaretz Democracy Conference, March 29, 2019Credit: תומר אפלבאום

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin told Haaretz Democracy Conference on Thursday that Israel must be "a democratic and Jewish state – not democratic only for Jews" and warned there is no democracy without a free press.

Opening the conference, Rivlin said "In the era of social media and fake news, where every person becomes a self-proclaimed journalist, journalistic standards are critical."

Rivlin added that the mainstream media must maintain standards that have been abandoned – fairness, fact checking, proportionality. He said that when things are published without differentiating between what is true and what is false, between reality and imagination, free press cannot exist.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak are also among the speakers at the conference, held as Haaretz celebrates 100 years since its founding.

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Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken spoke prior to Rivlin, after whom Roger Cohen of The New York Times gave a speech.

In an interview with Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that B'Tselem Director-General Hagai El-Ad harms Israel when he criticizes Israel outside the country, but that the country is a strong enough democracy to handle people on the "edge." 

Shaked said the left must be proud of its stances and not dress up as right, "be proud of what you believe in," she told the audience at the Haaretz conference.

On Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, she said he had "failed in the private market," referring to a failed company he was once the chairman of, and that someone who wants to enter politics must first have political experience and not jump straight from the military to the role of the prime minister.

On the issue of asylum seekers, Shaked said her party is in favor of them being taken in by Western countries such as Canada but that she opposed the United Nations plan that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed but then walked back on, since it would have led to naturalization of many. She added that Israel should work with Eritrea since it can take many back, especially since many Eritreans in Israel support the regime.

She also said there are still contacts with "third countries" that are safe and can take them, saying that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.

Arab parties 'are not in Gantz's pocket'

Hadash-Ta'al Chairman Ayman Odeh said the center-left bloc "is complicit in the incitement against" Israeli Arabs, by which "only helping the right. The left should say loud and clear: We're citizens. It must respect our political leadership."

Odeh told TheMarker journalist Meirav Arlosoroff he is "willing to sit [in government] with anyone," stressing "we want to take down Benjamin Netanyahu. But we're not in Gantz's pocket. He'll have to come to us, commit to overturn the Nation-State Law, to fight crime among Arab citizens and handle budgets allocated to the Arab society."

"I want to take down the right and Netanyahu, and waiting for the opportunity to do so," MK Ahmad Tibi, also of Hadash-Ta'al, told Haaretz reporter Jack Khoury. "The deciding role is that of the Jews, not the Arabs. I want to be [their] partner … But if there's a national unity government, we'll be against it."

Right led by 'unholy alliance'

Speaking with Haaretz journalist Gidi Weitz, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel is headed for apartheid under the current leadership, saying that Shaked dressing up for Purim as a fascist is "not a costume, but reality." He added that Netanyahu will end his career as a criminal and corrupt man.

Barak said that despite conventional wisdom, there are huge differences between the two big blocs, right and left. The center-left bloc is led by people committed to the "original Zionist vision" of a Jewish and democractic state, he said, whereas the other side is comprised of a "unholy alliance of those who want to destroy democracy" and includes "racists, fascists and messianics who want to turn this democracy into an apartheid state."

Barak added that the "unity of the people takes precedence over the unity of the territory," referring to struggle with the settlements movement. He also said that "the idea that Netanyahu is Mr. Security is fake" and "absurd."

Speaking of the new campaign by Netanyahu's party, Likud, aiming to brand the prime minister's main rival former military Chief of Staff Gantz as mentally unstable and therefore unfit to serve in office, Roger Cohen said: "Here in Israel Benny Gantz is attacked as insane and unstable by Netanyahu. I don’t think that’s how he became chief of staff of the IDF. But who cares?"

Referring to Netanyahu's statement that the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jews alone, Cohen said: "When I read Netanyahu say Israel is nation state, not of all its people, but of Jewish people, I shudder."

He added that "as a Jew and Zionist" I feel it's "awful" that nobody talks about Palestinians anymore, saying Netanyahu's behavior "suggests contempt of democratic processes."

In a conversation with Gideon Levy, Labor chair Avi Gabbay said that the nation-state law must have an equality clause added to it, adding that in his mind, the nation-state law didn't bring anything new since the Law of Return already determined that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The Law of Return gives anyone who has a Jewish grandparent, is married to a Jew or has converted to Judaism the right to move to Israel and become a citizen.

Bennett 'not right-wing enough'

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, who is running on the Kahol Lavan slate in the upcoming election, told Haaretz reporter Chaim Levinson "if we get five seats or more" than Likud, Gantz would lead the next coalition government. "I hope we'll act in unity," he said, referring to the unification of three parties, Yesh Atid included, into Kahol Lavan. "I'm not so sure Gantz and I have any major disagreements."

National Union Chairman Bezalel Smotrich, running with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, said ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who split from his party ahead of election to form Hayamin Hehadash "are not right-wing enough." He also said he has "a massive common ground" with far-right candidate Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Far-right Zehut Chairman Moshe Feiglin, whose popularity in public opinion polls surged mainly due to his views of legalization of marijuana, said Netanyahu "is an incredibly talented individual. He has a difficult problem – he has no strategy … The right has no direction and never had, but Gantz is even worse."

Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis told Haaretz columnist Uri Misgav she has "no particular affection for either Gantz or Netanyahu. I'm in nobody's pocket." She said she is confident her newly formed party will pass the electoral threshold, stressing she has no intention of dropping out of the race.

Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said "We've somewhat forgotten our pride, in the left, because of the right's incitement, but also because of the center's betrayal."

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni told TheMarker columnist Sami Peretz "I'm staying with Netanyahu," arguing that "once Gantz joined forces" with Yair Lapid, whose platform is seen as contradictory to that of ultra-Orthodox parties, "he chose a line that we can't partner with. He made a mistake."

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