Ruvi seeks a solution

The president stands up to the prime minister and charts a way out of the tribal morass engulfing Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
President Reuven Rivlin
WITH ISRAELI democracy under fire from within and the country facing growing criticism on the international stage for the deadlock in peacemaking with the Palestinians, President Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin has emerged as one of the sharpest critics of a body politic he feels is doing very little to address the nation’s most acute domestic and foreign policy problems.
Like the British monarchy, the presidency in Israel is mainly ceremonial, conceived primarily as a politically neutral force for national unity. The office’s lack of real power so frustrated Chaim Weizmann, its first incumbent, that he famously complained that the only thing he could poke his nose into was his handkerchief.
Rivlin, however, defines the presidency as democracy’s “additional soul,” a kind of overarching moral compass, and he has used the moral authority of the office to work for national unity, speak out when democratic principles are threatened, and, perhaps most importantly, to highlight some of the most profound moral, structural and existential domestic and foreign policy issues Israel faces. It is his job, he says, to ask the questions; it is up to the government to provide answers and relevant plans of action.
The president, who is meant to be above politics, is careful, for the most part, to avoid direct criticism of the government.
But the very fact that it has not provided answers or even addressed most of the pertinent questions tends to turn the president’s searching comments into an implicit indictment. His critical voice has been further amplified by the weakness of the opposition.
At the annual Herzliya Conference in early June, Rivlin outlined challenges posed by what he called “the new Israeli order,” which, if not addressed could undermine the entire Zionist project. In this new reality, secular Israelis – once the dominant Zionist force – no longer constitute a clear majority; instead, Israeli society is now made up of what Rivlin called “four principal tribes,” essentially different from each other and growing ever closer in size: secular Israelis, national religious Israelis, Haredim and Israeli Arabs.
Already in first grade classes today, 38 percent are secular (as opposed to over 50 percent two decades ago), 15 percent national religious, 25 percent Arabs and 22 percent Haredim – in other words, about half Zionist and half non-Zionist.
“Whether we like it or not, the makeup of the stakeholders in Israeli society and the State of Israel is changing before our very eyes,” he declared.
This basic structure is further entrenched by different school systems for each of the four tribes. Each tribe also has its own media platforms and its own towns. This creates wide disparities in cultural and religious identity; there are also significant economic gaps between the secular and national religious groups and the Haredim and theArabs. If all four groups pull in different directions, there could be trouble for the Zionist character of the state and for any shared sense of what it means to be Israeli.
ONCE THE IDF served as a melting pot, at least for the majority Zionist groups.
But this is no longer the case. Now, not only are Haredim and Arabs largely exempt, but a growing number of secular Israelis don’t serve either.
In Rivlin’s view, it is time to move on from the melting pot idea to a new concept of equal partnership between the four groups. It should rest on four pillars: · A sense of security in each tribe, so that they all feel confident in moving towards equal partnership · Inculcation in each tribe of a shared responsibility for society and the state · Equal treatment and equality for all groups · Creation of common elements in an all-encompassing Israeli national character, a shared “Israeliness.”
In Rivlin’s view, the government needs to adopt a plan of action to promote closer understanding between the tribes and bring them together in a new inclusive social contract. Among the steps that could be taken would be a school curriculum with common elements, in which all groups learn both Hebrew and Arabic, and study each other’s cultures. There should also be fairer allocation of national budgets.
Rivlin hailed the government’s decision to allocate an unprecedented NIS 15 billion ($3.8 billion) over five years to the Arab sector as a highly significant step in the right direction. At last, he said, the state was taking responsibility for its Arab citizens.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the initial statement of intent in late December, seemed to make the allocation dependent on Arab conduct – and it is still not clear whether the funds will actually be made available.
For Rivlin true partnership with the Arab sector is an “existential necessity.” Not only should budgets be provided to create parity with Jewish communities, he believes that there should also be affirmative action in higher education and more jobs allocated in the public sector. As an integral part of the Israeli collective, Israeli Arab leaders should also take responsibility and raise a clear voice against terror and against the Islamic State and its ideology. Jews and Arabs are not “doomed” to live together, Rivlin says, they are “meant” to do so.
The Arabic-speaking Rivlin, renowned for his quick wit and ability to put people at ease, sees himself as a builder of bridges between the different “tribes,” primarily between Jews and Arabs. One of his first acts as president was to visit the Arab town of Kafr Qassem, in October 2014, as the guest of honor at a ceremony marking the 58th anniversary of the massacre by border police of 49 Arab villagers returning home after work soon after a curfew imposed at the outbreak of the 1956 Sinai campaign.
Describing it as “an exceptional and dark chapter” in relations between Jews and Arabs, Rivlin declared, “I am here to reiterate – a terrible crime was committed here, an illegal order that should not have been obeyed was given here.”
Rivlin sees the office of the presidency as a bulwark against attacks on Israel’s democracy and has been brave in using it. He had no qualms about calling out Netanyahu for his “Arabs are being bused to the polls in droves” comment on election day last March. “One who is afraid of votes in a ballot box will eventually see stones thrown in the streets,” he observed. And standing up against the vast majority in his own Likud party, including Netanyahu, he has been an outspoken opponent of the socalled Jewish “nation state” bills and bills to label NGOs that receive most of their funding from foreign governments.
RIVLIN HAS also taken a strong stand against Jewish vigilantism and been highly critical of the government’s failure to deal with it effectively. After the arson attack in the West Bank Arab village of Duma in July, which killed three members of the Palestinian Dawabsheh family, including the parents and an 18-month-old toddler, Rivlin expressed his shame that “members of my people have chosen the path of terror and lost their humanity.”
Addressing a tolerance rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square the following day, he said the government needed to ask what in today’s public climate encourages the fanatics; it couldn’t go on with feeble condemnations and needed to develop tools to fight Jewish terror.
For this and earlier criticisms of Jewish “price-tag” terror, he received death threats. And chillingly, like assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, photoshop pictures of Rivlin in a Nazi uniform made the rounds on social media. Asked at the time if he thought another political assassination was in the cards, he replied, “Anything is possible.”
But it is not only the government’s domestic performance – its failure to address the challenges posed by the new Israeli order and the assault on democracy – that worry Rivlin. He is also deeply troubled by its failure to advance peacemaking with the Palestinians. In his view, Israel should be far more proactive in taking steps to rebuild trust and pave the way for a more lasting solution.
In an early December op-ed in The Washington Post, he argued that the government should cultivate business and cultural channels, recognize that building Rawabi, the new state-of-the-art Palestinian city near Ramallah, is in Israel’s interest, and address the years of municipal neglect in Arab East Jerusalem. “Does anyone think that dealing with the sewage, roads, schools and medical centers of eastern Jerusalem can or should wait until the end of the conflict?” he challenged.
But Rivlin goes much further. In the past, a bitter opponent of the Oslo process leading to two states for two peoples, he now suggests a final-status peace model very different from anything any Israeli government has proposed before – a joint Israeli- Palestinian confederation. There would be two states, Israel and Palestine, two parliaments, two constitutions – but only one army, the IDF.
The big advantage of the confederative arrangement is that it would finesse the need to relocate large numbers of Jewish settlers against their will. They would be able to continue living on the Palestinian side of the border, subject to Palestinian law, but vote for the Israeli parliament. For their part, the Palestinians would have full civil rights in Palestine. The IDF would provide security for all with strategic depth up to the Jordan River. There would be shared infrastructure, like a common electricity grid, and water resources. Decisions concerning both states would be made jointly.
For Rivlin, a dedicated supporter of Greater Israel who opposed the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the confederation is a means of maintaining access to all the land and providing security, while creating a democratic framework for the Palestinians and fostering good neighborliness.
It is a kind of utopian extension of the realities of his boyhood in Jerusalem, in which Jews and Arabs lived in close proximity and, especially in his family (his father was a notable Arabist who translated the Koran into Hebrew), enjoyed warm social relations with their Arab neighbors.
Jerusalem, says Rivlin, is a microcosm of the ability to live together – the four Israeli tribes and the Palestinians.
The problem is that the Palestinians, intent on an independent state of their own, are unlikely to go along with Rivlin’s confederation, especially since it leaves the IDF in control of the Palestinian areas – a situation they would likely see as a continuation of the occupation by other means.
The confederation idea, however, has received support from some surprising quarters – for example, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, and Yossi Beilin, the left-wing Israeli architect of the Oslo process. Beilin, formerly a leading supporter of the separate two states for two peoples model, now insists that a confederation is the only practical solution, primarily because it solves the Jewish settler problem without the need for massive relocation.
In Beilin’s version each side has its own government and parliament, separate membership in the United Nations and independent foreign policy, but joint institutions for mutual issues like water, infrastructure, environment, police and emergency services. As for security in Palestine, it would be guaranteed by a multinational force jointly supervised by the confederation, rather than directly by the IDF, as in Rivlin’s model.
BEILIN CLAIMS that the confederation idea was actually first raised by the Palestinian side, by Faisal Husseini, one of his Palestinian interlocutors in the early 1990s, who recognized that an independent Palestine had much to gain from close association with an economically powerful Israel.
Nevertheless, given the deep mistrust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders today, the confederation idea is likely to prove a hard sell. This is also the case for any attempts Rivlin might make to convince Netanyahu.
Years of bad blood between the two have been exacerbated by the president’s strong criticisms – implied and explicit – of Netanyahu’s leadership. For example, at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session in mid-October, Rivlin called for leadership that “doesn’t lose its internal compass in stormy times.” And, in a clear dig at the prime minister, he continued, “We need leadership that is not motivated by and does not fuel fear; that is not led, but which leads.”
The feuding between Rivlin and Netanyahu goes back almost three decades. When first elected to the Knesset in 1988, Rivlin sided with David Levy, Netanyahu’s chief rival for leadership of the Likud after Yitzhak Shamir; in 2001, when Netanyahu tried to make a political comeback and wrest the leadership from Ariel Sharon, Rivlin, by then a Sharon loyalist, was instrumental in blocking him.
As speaker of the Knesset, 2003-2006 and 2009-2013, Rivlin proved a true follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky (the liberal founder of the Revisionist movement from which the Likud stems), a stickler for democratic norms and minority rights, often ruffling Netanyahu’s feathers.
He also apparently crossed Netanyahu’s wife Sara. “My wife doesn’t appoint people,” he thundered at Netanyahu during a 2010 coalition meeting. To this day, Rivlin remains convinced that it was Sara who was responsible for his ignominious ouster as Speaker in 2013.
In any event, Netanyahu did all he could to torpedo Rivlin’s candidacy for the presidency the following year. It was only on the votes of opposition Laborites, who broke party ranks to support him, that he was eventually elected.
Now the rivalry has come to a head in clashes on a range of key issues between president and prime minister. Rivlin has suggested ways of dealing with those issues. His vision, based on goodwill between rival camps, and on the various Israeli tribes and the Palestinians all finding a modus vivendi in which personal relations transcend politics, may seem naïve. But at least it is coherent.
And those who with good reason doubt that it can work and who care about the future of the Zionist project need to produce equally coherent alternatives – and take steps to make them happen.