Israel’s One-state President – and Lone Voice Against anti-Arab Racism

Contradictory? President Rivlin, a right-winger who opposes Palestinian statehood, is also Israel’s only major outspoken political campaigner for Jewish-Arab tolerance.

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President Reuven Rivlin during the annual memorial ceremony for the 47 Arab-Israelis killed by Israeli border policemen on October 29, 1956 in the Arab-Israeli town of Kfar Kassem, Oct. 26, 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A few days into the Jewish New Year, Israel's new president, Reuven Rivlin, did something that surprised and moved many Israelis: He teamed up with an 11-year-old Arab youngster to make a video calling for intercommunal tolerance.

The boy, one George Amireh, a Christian from Jaffa, had made a viral video expressing frustration at bullying peers, and Rivlin approached him to collaborate. In his original video, Amireh drops a series of placards Bob Dylan-style, bearing names the other kids call him at school. His video with the president broadens the message, with placards reading: “Let us promise ourselves that this year we will act for tolerance, empathy, unity, equality – values that we must have in our state.”

The video resonated – no mean feat in the post-Gaza war climate. Relations between the Jewish majority and the 20 percent minority of Palestinian citizens of Israel, delicate at the best of times, were under enormous pressure this summer. The country was reeling from the murders of three Israeli teens in the West Bank and the murder of a Palestinian teen in East Jerusalem, and the ensuing 50-day Israel-Hamas hostilities put Arab-Jewish relations to the test.

Most Jews supported the Gaza operation, but most Arabs did not. At times, these tensions developed into outright confrontation. Arabs and a minority of left-wing Jews regularly rallied against the war, while a vocal minority of right-wing extremists shouted “Death to Arabs” and “Death to leftists” in counter-protests. More recently, tensions in Jerusalem have been simmering since the Palestinian hit and run terror attack Wednesday, in which a Jewish baby was killed and several people wounded.

Netanyahu has issued few unifying messages to calm divisions, but Rivlin has made his pro-tolerance message a top priority since taking office. While Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a boycott of Arab businesses taking part in a protest strike against the summer war, Rivlin's first Knesset speech in office urged lawmakers not to ignore "the extremism and violence that have raised their ugly heads among us." In the process, he has become the only major political voice in Israel advocating tolerance. 

When extremists protested the wedding in August of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman who converted to Islam, Netanyahu stayed mum. Rivlin, meanwhile, said there was no place in Israeli society for the “infuriating and distressing” displays “of incitement” against the couple. Just this week, he told a conference that violence in Israel has reached new heights, wondered whether Israeli Jews have “forgotten how to be decent human beings,” and said, “It's time to admit honestly that Israeli society is sick – and this sickness must be treated.” On Sunday, he became the first president to attend the memorial ceremony for the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre, when Border Police officers shot and killed 47 residents of the Arab village. He said this was a "serious crime" that needed to be repaired.

The rub is that Rivlin, who was twice Knesset speaker, and lost the presidential race to Peres in 2007, is no bastion of the left or the peace camp. Although he is known for his commitment to rights and democracy, for his past outspokenness for minority rights, and his vocal opposition to anti-democratic legislation, he is also known for his opposition to the two-state solution.

In fact, his views on the peace process are anathema to the mainstream peace camp. Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, an eighth-generation Jerusalemite, believes in equal rights for Palestinians, but in one state between the river and the sea, with Jerusalem as its united capital. What this means is that the only major political voice speaking out against the racism and intolerance plaguing Israeli society is also a supporter of the settlement enterprise, and is against the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Proponents of one state can be found on both ends of the political spectrum, and the fact that Rivlin has this vision doesn't make his commitment to equal rights for all citizens any less real. Nor does it make it any less valuable for the country. But, the fact that the country’s head of state, its figurehead, holds this view symbolizes the post-Oslo weariness of the moderate majority of Israelis. They have watched the peace process bear no fruit for the past twenty years, while a minority on the right, like Rivlin, who didn’t believe in the two-state solution in the first place, feel vindicated.

Rivlin’s message and vision of tolerance also highlights the weakness of the left and the peace camp; their statements against incitement and violence these past few months rang much quieter than his.

In broader terms, the fact that Rivlin is using the largely ceremonial role to push a coexistence message is an indicator of how divided this society has become. It would seem the new president sees the issue as a matter of urgency. And this is no easy message to push. As Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz last week, Rivlin couldn’t get away with saying Israel was “sick” if he was American. His willingness to hang out some of Israel’s dirty laundry, however, is a sign of the authenticity of his intention.

Rivlin’s controversial views raise other questions regarding Israel's global standing. His predecessor, Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, was well-liked and respected internationally. His charisma and belief in two states provided a counterweight to the Netanyahu government’s lack of progress on peace, and Netanyahu and Lieberman's utter lack of popularity. Rivlin’s stance could be uncomfortable for Israel on the global stage during his seven-year presidency. So far, however, Rivlin proved to be a calming voice amid the summer’s storm.

Israelis sorely need a uniting leadership that reminds them to be more tolerant of each other. The question remains whether Rivlin’s version of such a leadership can contain the desire of many for a two-state reality, and whether his one-state views will harm the peace process. Right now, his efforts to soothe the strained relations between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel is doing something equally, if not more, important for the future of the country.

Alona Ferber is a reporter and editor for Haaretz.com. Follow her on Twitter: @paperdispatch

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