Israel’s President: How He Differs with His Likud Party

Prof. As’ad Abdul Rahman

The position of the Israeli president is ceremonial, rather non-political with limited powers. He is not entitled to attend the cabinet meetings or to object to Knesset (parliament) legislations, neither can he leave Israel without an official permission, nor dissolve the Knesset or sack the government where the effective executive power lies with the prime minister. The current president Reuven Rivlin is a lawyer who began his political career in the Likud party in 1988 after which he became member of the Knesset and served as its president twice, between 2003-2006 and 2009-20013. Yet, he now appears with a political position different from that embraced by his party.

Rivlin, who on different occasions opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, declared two weeks ago that Israel had no option but to think of reaching agreements with the Palestinians.   “We have to start thinking of the future and how to get out of the political impasse with the Palestinians. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains as the central issue even if our eyes are closed”, he said.

The Israeli President previously opposed a plan to ban the Moslem call for prayer from mosques (Adhan) saying a related draft law would show Israel as a democracy for Jews only, acting within a set of ethnic and religious standards in drafting laws against Moslems, not against a noise.  He went on to say that “as a small boy, it was a source of pride for Jerusalem  to hear church bells, the sound of Muslem Moathen (call for prayer) along with a siren signaling the beginning of a Jewish ‘Sabbath’ with the sounds of prayers from Jewish synagogues”.

Although he is known as a hardline politician, Rivlin’s political stand is different from that of Likud led by Netanyahu, the party known for its rightist extremist agenda. Rivlin has said that “Israel is defined as a Jewish state but we should not forget that it is defined at the same time as a democracy. I call on the Jews and my Arab brothers also to avoid incitement.” He urged the 1948 Palestinians to enlist in the civil service, a demand they have unanimously rejected. He explained that “we live in cooperation with each other in one society and one state”. Moreover, Rivlin sharply criticized Israeli rightist politicians who were promoting the notion of stripping the 1948 Palestinians of their Israeli citizenship, describing their move as unpractical and unethical because Jews and Arabs are destined to live together, he said.

While speaking of the need to end the impasse with the Palestinians, Rivlin is known as a staunch supporter of Jewish “settlements”/ colonies. He has made two visits to the council of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank since he became president in the midst of Israel’s war on Gaza Strip in 2014. He has openly declared that “settlement in the land of Israel represents the right of the Jewish people to the land of its fathers and grandfathers”!! He reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to fight what he called as the wave of terrorism against Jewish settlers. In both visits, he tended to make a connection between the “liberation of Jerusalem and the West Bank” i.e. the 1967 war, and what he termed as the return of the Jewish people to its land.

Rivlin rules out the possibility of a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future because of the lack of trust between the leaderships and the people, he said. He added that seeking to achieve a permanent solution is doomed to failure which may lead the two peoples to more despair. However, the Israeli president has never concealed his opposition to an independent Palestinian state. Nevertheless, Merav Alush Levron shed light in Haaretz on the Israeli president’s position. He said Rivlin spoke more than once of his support to a confederation of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, with open borders, united Jerusalem with a joint administration of its holy sites and two sovereign democratic powers. He said it was an initiative for “two states-one homeland” that proposes a confederation which courage in approaching the conflict and the possibility of making a breakthrough in the stalemate where political debating has arrived. “Levron said by supporting settlements to remain where they are, the initiative provides an answer to the practical and ethical difficulty of evacuating the settlers, and a solution to the right of return problem by proposing open borders with rights gradually allowing Palestinians to live and work in Israel as citizens”.

Yoel Marcus wrote in the same newspaper saying  that the hardliner Rivlin now appeared as the president (of the people) working for peace and standing like a wall in the face of powers threatening to bring down the Israeli democracy (by pushing for more repression against the 1948  and 1967 Arabs). In a further comment on Rivlin’s position, an editorial in the newspaper predicted that he would not be a president of the state of Israel but a president of the greater Israel and would use his position to advance Jewish settlement in the West bank, a thing he highly cherishes, it noted. Finally, wasn’t he who said “I prefer to accept the Palestinians as citizens of Israel, instead of dividing the state? We must annex the West Bank (within a context of confederation)”. This is how Rivlin differs with the broad lines of the ruling Likud.