Israel’s President Is More Complex Than You’d Think

Some people are surprised by some of the things Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said and done. That just shows a real lack of historical Reuven_Rivlinperspective on the Israeli political scene.

In the United States and Europe, the Israeli right, epitomized by the Likud Coalition, has always been the “opponent of peace,” while the Labor Party and, later, Kadima were the “pursuers of peace.” This was always a false dichotomy. It would have been somewhat truer to say that supporters of Likud were usually, but far from always, opposed to the two-state solution that Oslo envisioned, while Labor and Kadima supported it. 

But in reality, 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.

His 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. And such a view is not unusual for 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.

While counter-intuitive, it is in fact quite commonplace among the more classical Israeli right that they show much more concern (albeit still in a prejudicial way) for the rights of Palestinians than the so-called left in Israel, as represented by Labor or Kadima. Meretz and the anti or non-Zionist left are of course more mindful of equal rights, but in the mainstream, ideas like Rivlin’s which mix equal individual rights with the denial of Palestinian national rights used to be common in right of Center parties.

Sadly not the case in the era of Bennett, Lieberman, Shaked, Regev, and their ilk. And even more sadly, the right’s move to the extreme has, like in the USA, only caused the ostensible center and so-called “moderate left” to lurch rightward along with them. When searching for ways to try to re-think approaches to resolving the conflict, Reuven Rivlin may not exactly be someone that most Palestinians, solidarity activists or Israeli and Jewish leftists (in the more radical sense of that word) will feel comfortable with. But if Israeli politicians are going to be engaged, he’s a damn sight more realistic and ethically-minded than Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert or even Yitzhak Rabin, let alone the new figures of the Israeli right. It might be worth talking to him, and maybe even listening a bit.

One thought on “Israel’s President Is More Complex Than You’d Think

  1. I get the impression that you imply that the Kafr Qasem massacre is somehow muffled away in the Israeli collective memory, and that Israeli leaders fail to admit it was a crime.

    President Shimon Peres, in fact, apologized for the massacre during 2007 visit to Kfar Qasem. And the events led to the establishment of the concept of a ‘blatantly illegal order’ – “The distinguishing mark of a manifestly [or blatantly] illegal order is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: ‘Prohibited!’.”

    The notion of ‘blatantly illegal orders’ is taught as part of mandatory studies in the Israeli high-school system, as well as in basic training in the mandatory Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) service. So the view that the events of Kfar Qasem were a crime is the standard view in the Israeli society. Reuven Rivlin is special for a lot of reasons, but not because of his views on the Kfar Qasem massacre.

Comments are closed.