(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bringing with him one right-wing Jewish MK, one left-wing Arab MK and a message of understanding and reconciliation, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Umm el-Fahm Sunday, meeting with local leadership during the first official visit of a Knesset speaker to the Wadi Ara city.
Rivlin promised that the restive city would remain an integral part of the State of Israel, and said that he did not believe that Arab citizens should be expected to sing the national anthem.
"Immediately on being elected to the chair the Knesset, Rivlin said that he wanted his first visit to be to Umm el-Fahm," said Rivlin aide Harel Tubi Sunday. "He was aware that there was tension between Arabs and Jews there, and he, as a democrat, as a Jabotinskyite, sees Arabs as full citizens entitled to full rights under the law."
Rivlin met with Umm el-Fahm Mayor Sheikh Khaled Hamadan at the town's municipality, and said, "We need to launch a dialogue between us and to stop sweeping things under the rug."
Hamadan praised Rivlin for his visit and congratulated him on his new position.
"We welcome all our guests with flowers, and anyone who enters our gates will be received according to the finest Arab tradition," he said. "But whoever calls to uproot us is not welcome."
He asked Rivlin to work toward the advancement of the Arab sector and to bridge the gaps, and the Knesset speaker reiterated that he would do what he could to aid the town's citizens in problems that could be solved domestically.
Rivlin also expressed understanding for the difficulty that some Arab citizens feel singing the words of the national anthem.
"I can't force a non-Jew to sing 'As long as in the heart, within, a Jewish soul still yearns,'" said Rivlin, "but at the same time, citizens cannot go against the State of Israel."
Rivlin expressed his opposition to coalition partner and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's plan for land and population swaps. Lieberman has centered on the northern town as a focus of his proposal.
"There are those who say we need to transfer Umm el-Fahm, but Umm el-Fahm is, was and will always be an Israeli city. I say the same concerning Jerusalem," he said.
Rivlin's visit came a month after scores of far-Right activists waving Israeli flags and singing "Am Yisrael Hai" marched on the outskirts of Umm el-Fahm, sparking clashes between stone-throwing Arab youths and police.
The Knesset speaker said there was no link between his visit and the right-wing march.
"I have not come because of the march or to protest the march," he said. "Umm el-Fahm is an Israeli city, and we needn't say any more because it has been decreed that we live together. We were meant to live together, and forging ties between us is a vital condition for peace in the region."
Even MKs usually critical of the government's - and especially the Likud's - relations with Arab citizens saw the visit in a positive light. MK Said Nafa'a (Balad) said that the visit was welcome and important in renewing dialogue within the town.
Rivlin was accompanied on his visit by Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach and Hadash MK Afo Agbaria, an Umm el-Fahm resident.
"We must focus on living together, and no matter what, we need to stop deprivation and discrimination," Agbaria said during the visit.
Right-wing activists Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir criticized Rivlin, saying that the visit constituted flattery of hostile forces, but Tubi emphasized that "there was not weakness, but simply a respectful dialogue in which both sides expressed their opinions without giving up on their interpretations, stances and worldviews."
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.