By Justin Cohen, News Editor.
Israel’s president has warned that the country’s new Government must work to bring the state back from the brink of isolation and spoke of his dream of all Jews moving to the state, in an interview marking the country’s birthday.
Reuven Rivlin also used the meeting with Jewish media from around the world to speak of his determination to enhance relations between Jews and Arabs, rising anti-Semitism around the world and his concern about a proposed deal with the Iranians “despite all the threats and ideas held by the ayatollah”.
The president, who succeeded Shimon Peres last summer, said differences between Jerusalem and the international community over how to tackle Tehran’s nuclear programme, as well as over the conflict with the Palestinians, had left Israel in danger of being isolated.
“I really believe we need a strong Government. We are on the way to being isolated by many of our friends – the Europeans and the Americans – and I believe the Government has to take into consideration those matters in order to avoid them,” he told a first meeting with Jewish journalists from around the world.
“In order to help people understand that Israel faces what the whole world should face because if they ignore it…they are going to experience many problems.” He stressed the importance of the US to Israel’s future but warned the state must resist “loud and clear” any moves that could put the state in danger. In a strikingly pointed message, Rivlin said: “We have to warn him [President Obama] it’s impossible to accept any idea that will bring Israel to a situation that would affect its very existence.”
Turning his attention to the conflict with the Palestinians, he called on his counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, with whom he negotiated during the second intifada, to return to the negotiating table “to bring an end to the tragedy that all of us – Israelis and Palestinians – are living.
“It is our destiny to live together and we have no other choice. We have no war with Islam but there are fundamentalists in every religion who are bringing up the fires”. A settlement, he added, would bring prizes in terms of tourism and the economy.
But the President also offered a glimpse into the internal conflict facing a man seen as being a long-term opponent of the two-state and at the same time a passionate advocate of democracy. While he “believes in the ideology that Zion belongs to the Jewish people”, he insisted “we have to solve the problem of how to live together in a Jewish and democratic state. I’m trying to discuss those matters with the president of the Palestinian people”. He even suggested: “Maybe we can live in a federation until we will have 12 million Jews deciding the best place to live is Israel. On the one hand I’m an idealist, on the other, we have problems we must face.”
But it’s his passionate advocacy for Israeli Arabs that have been a hallmark of the early months of his time at Beit HaNassi – opposing the Jewish state bill and becoming the first Israeli head of state to attend a memorial service for the 49 Arab Israeli killed by border policeman at Kfar Kassem nearly six decades ago. He has also spoken of an epidemic of racism.
“Because of hatred and the problems we have with extremists, if you go to a Jewish kindergarten and ask ‘what is evil’ they will say Arabs and if you go to an Arab kindergarten and ask the same, they will say Jews, Israeli soldiers. It’s horrible. We are living with the Arab people and we are the majority. The responsibility is on our shoulders.” But he warned: “Some of them have a sort of conflict between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the people. It’s kind of my idea that they eventually have to recognise something that they won’t accept for the time being: that the land of Israel is the fatherland of the Jewish people.”
While he expressed pride at the fact Arab MKs sit in the Knesset, he suggested neither Arabs or Jews were yet ready for the inclusion of Arab parties in the coalition; he suggested, however, they were on the right route and envisioned this would change. The Government had committed one billion shekels to try to build up Arab towns to bridge the gaps with Jewish areas, he said, adding: “I don’t see why Raanana or Petach Tikva will be any different from Kfar Kassem,” he said.
Referring to the role he could play, the president insisted he wanted to “build the Israeli hope, to bring everyone in Israel together. There is no conflict between Jewish and democratic – those are words to go to all the Arab villages and towns, to the strictly Orthodox people to stress we’re living together and responsible for each other. If one cannot serve in the army because of traditions he can do national service. I see very orthodox people who are excellent soldiers and keep their way of living”.
Looking beyond the Middle East, he said world leaders he had spoken to treated the rise in anti-Semitism extremely seriously. He had used such meetings to stress that hatred of Jews, rather than Israel, caused anti-Semitism.
Months after Netanyahu faced condemnation for his call for mass Aliyah in the wake of the Copenhagen atrocity, Rivlin said he had never believed in Jews moving because of danger. “I’m dreaming about the day all Jews will come back to Israel,” he told the gathering. “It would reaffirm the idea of a Jewish-democratic state if there were more than 10 million Jews. But we are facing reality and more than that I don’t want anyone to come because they are forced to. I would like everyone to be invited and to find Israel the best place for them”.
He spoke with huge pride at the “tremendous” achievements of the state in science, tech and business. But, as Israel’s supporters around the world celebrate independence day, he insisted the state shouldn’t be taken for granted even 67 years on. “We have to appreciate our ability to live in our independent state of the Jewish people.“