Forward Thinking

Why Israeli Left Should Cheer Reuven Rivlin

By Anna Momigliano

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Israel’s newly elected president Reuven Rivlin / Getty Images

For some reason, whenever a Palestinian (or an Arab American, for that matter) expresses one-state views, he’s accused of threatening Israel’s existence. When an Israeli voices the exact same view, he’s labeled a hawk, a Zionist hard-liner. That’s precisely what happened when Reuven Rivlin, the former speaker of the Knesset and a seasoned Likudnik politician, was elected on Tuesday as the new president of Israel.

Liberal Zionists and progressive commentators were quick to describe his election as bad news, a threat to the peace process and to Israeli-Palestinian relations. But if we take a closer look at Israeli politics and Rivlin’s personal views, we get a different picture.

Rivlin is definitely a vocal opponent of the Oslo accords. He rejects the very idea of giving the occupied territories away. But, on the other hand, he also proposed giving Palestinians Israeli citizenship, full civil rights and the right to vote in a much-discussed Haaretz interview back in 2010.

Just like Netanyahu, Rivlin would like Israel to keep the West Bank. But unlike Netanyahu — whose agenda works to maintain the status quo, making the occupation permanent — Rivlin suggests making the West Bank into part of Israel and its inhabitants into full Israeli citizens. That’s not a minor deviation.

It’s worth noting that Netanyahu reportedly opposed Rivlin’s election up until the very last minute. The prime minister sent messages to several Likud MKs urging them to vote for Hatnuah candidate Meir Sheetrit. Avigdor Lieberman, on the other hand, openly supported Sheetrit.

Israel National News, which leaked the information about Netanyahu’s messages, attributed this to Bibi’s “personal animosity” toward Rivlin, a long-time rival. But there’s more to the story. The “animosity” between Netanyahu and Rivlin actually underscores a deeper rift that has, over the past few years, been dividing the two “souls” inside the Likud.

As an Israeli columnist once explained to me, Israel’s largest conservative party is essentially divided between those who see Israeli democracy as something “expendable” and those who do not. Netanyahu clearly belongs to the first faction. He’s convinced that the birth of a Palestinian state would endanger Israel’s own survival; on the other hand, he’s not willing to give Palestinians voting rights, because he fears that will also endanger Israel’s existence. The result is that he sees permanent occupation as the only viable solution. This, incidentally, also means keeping more than two million Palestinians under the control of a government over which they have no voting power. And it means endangering Israel’s own democratic nature. It’s not that Bibi doesn’t value Israeli democracy — it’s just that he considers it an expendable asset.

But others inside the Likud do not share Netanyahu’s value system. Some Likudniks, like Rivlin, see democracy as a non-negotiable issue. They may share Bibi’s view that the birth of a Palestinian state is a danger to Israel, but they’re willing to pay the price of keeping the territories while protecting Israel’s democratic nature. This, as Rivlin candidly admitted in his Haaretz interview, means giving full rights to Palestinians under Israeli control.

Now, I’m not saying that Rivlin is beyond criticism. Personally, I find his statement equating Reform Judaism with “idol worship” revolting. Nor do I believe that the one-state solution is necessarily the best one.

But given the present circumstances, I consider it a positive thing that Israel has elected a man who recognizes that his country cannot keep millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control without civil rights.

The media loves to split Israeli politicians into “hawks” and “doves,” into those who support settlements and those who do not. But maybe the main distinction comes down to something else: There are those who see as acceptable the idea of keeping millions of people under Israeli control with no voting power, and those who do not. Some of the latter see the creation of a Palestinian state as the only solution, while others believe that giving them full rights would be a smarter idea — but at least they both recognize the basic moral truth of the situation.

Anna Momigliano is an Italian journalist currently based in Milan.


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