Israel’s parliament the Knesset has elected a new President. He is Reuven (“Ruvi”) Rivlin, arch conservative, privatiser, an out-and-out opponent of a Palestinian state and exponent of an undivided Israel. He also, according to polls, has wide public support. And to top it all, he is a lifelong fan of Beitar, the football team whose favourite chant is KILL ALL ARABS.
Is this more bad news then? Is he another ultra-right flagwaving crowd-pleaser?
Well, by all accounts Rivlin is a decent individual: he stood up for Haneen Zoabi and Ahmed Tibi, Palestinian Members of Knesset reviled and howled down by the Zionist mob there. He also tried to stem the flood of repressive laws the Knesset has unleashed in the past few years. And he has said publicly that he would concede the vote to Palestinian citizens rather than re-partition the country into two states so as to preserve the ethnic Jewish hegemony of pre-Occupation Israel: “I would prefer for the Palestinians to be citizens of this country rather than divide the land.”
Most significantly, he is “appalled” by the rising tide of anti-Arab racism: “whenever I hear about a demographic threat, it comes first of all from a type of thinking that says the Arabs are a threat. And this leads to thinking of transfer, or that they should be killed. I am appalled by this kind of talk.” Arabs and Jews, he says, are “both right, each in their own way. … All kinds of solutions can be found. … We could create a system in which life is shared. … So if people say to me: Decide − one state or division of the Land of Israel, I say that division is the bigger danger … this talk about separation is keeping us from reaching a solution.”
The Presidency wields no power, but huge prestige. And Rivlin will know what to do with it: on his election as Knesset Speaker, his first action was a goodwill visit to the town of Umm el Fahm, which, with its solidly Arab population, is at the centre of the area that racist leader Lieberman fancies he will “transfer” into the West Bank by re-drawing the border around it.
Israeli journalist Dimi Reider, writing in the dissident magazine +972 during the Presidency campaign, highlights Lieberman’s comments on Rivlin, which he says “reads like the best pitch for an opposition vote Rivlin could have wished for”: “when he became speaker we realized he wasn’t what we thought. As far as I’m concerned” Lieberman says, “Rivlin cannot be our candidate for presidency. … there’s a message about going to Umm el-Fahm. It tells you something. When we tried to deny [exiled Palestinian MK] Azmi Bishara his parliamentary pension, Rivlin was against. When Faina Kirschenbaum wanted to pass a law against extreme leftist NGOs he [Rivlin] was the one to stop this, while at the same time boosting the status of Ahmed Tibi… He went against us, full on..”
Sadly, Rivlin’s election is not remotely indicative of political support for his views or his track record. He was elected despite, not because of them, and as a result of alliances and plots designed to give Netanyahu a bloody nose. And it has certainly succeeded in doing that.
Nevertheless, Rivlin’s elevation to the Presidency will change the whole conversation.
If the President of Israel is against partition, this totally undermines the view that even though it is stone dead the Two State solution remains the only game in town, the international consensus. And it does away with the accusation that the very talk of a single country is taboo, anti-semitic and even “genocidal”.
And if the President of Israel, an establishment grandee and Beitar fan, says “both sides are right”, that also pushes back at the aggressive Greater Israel racism that has been the role model and marker for generations of Israeli Jews.
Rivlin’s ideas are a long way from “one person, one vote”, which the One Democratic State movement believes is the most flexible way to live together. He thinks and talks in terms of “the Land of Israel”, which seriously contradicts the view that both sides are right, and several other such formulations are replaced in the statement above by dots… But if someone gives you a horse for free, you don’t examine its teeth to see how old it is.
The gift horse, in this case, is that Rivlin’s views represent a paradigm shift. No longer is it a matter of one state vs. two states. Now it is about what kind of undivided country it will be. The outcome of that question will be decided by the struggles to come — struggles over rights, not over borders.
At such a time, Rivlin himself might yet prove to be a “partner for peace”, perhaps even Israel’s successor to FW De Klerk who negotiated the end of South African apartheid with the ANC leaders, after a combination of Sanctions, Boycotts and Divestment and massive popular uprisings had made apartheid unsustainable.
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