Likud President of the Knesset Wants to Strengthen the bond between Jews and Arabs

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Israel President Reuven Rivlin has long been a strong supporter of minority rights in Israel. Under Israel’s parliamentary system, Rivlin heads the Knesset, or the county’s parliament. In that role, Rivlin is the official head of state and the chief executive. However, most of those powers are largely ceremonial, as the Prime Minister holds most of the real power. Nevertheless, the President is an important symbolic role, one that Rivlin has used to champion many causes that he personally values.

Throughout his career, Rivlin has defended the rights of Arab-Israelis and other minorities. Though a member of Likud, Israel’s right wing party often known in the west for its hawkish views, Rivlin has used his position to reach out to Muslims and strengthen the bond between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. In 2010, as Speaker of the Knesset, Rivlin even made an official visit to a largely Arab Israeli city of Umm el-Fahm, viewed by many in Israel as the epicenter of anti-Jewish agitation.

During a recent and highly publicized burning and killing of a Palestinian toddler in the West Bank, Rivlin led the charge in denouncing the attack. He issued a statement in both Arabic and Hebrew proclaiming that terrorism from either side will not be allowed to triumph.  Furthermore, he acknowledged that Israel often takes a lax approach to treating Jewish terrorists, and sometimes encourages extremism to flourish. Sadly, shortly after, Rivlin received numerous death threats from right wing extremists. One Facebook post read “You bloody loser, your end will be worse than Ariel Sharon’s, you will see. I pray that another ‘Yigal Amir’ [referring to the killer of Yitzhak Rabin] will rise to cleanse you and the Arabs from our Jewish country, and so I wish you ill health and any other suffering.”

Reuven Rivlin’s highly publicized views, along with his high ranking membership in Likud, are somewhat of an enigma to western observers. Afterall, Likud is often denounced in the west by human rights champions and international observers for encouraging settlements and promoting the occupation of territory in the West Bank.

However, to those familiar with Israeli politics, Rivlin’s positions are not at all surprising. Israel’s political parties are weak and rarely unified. Likud, or “consolidation” in English, is itself a coalition party of various factions. Its founders former Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir famously headed pro-Zionist military groups Irgun and Lehi during Israel’s formation, but the party was only able to come to power through an alliance with leaders like the former Minister of Foreign Affairs David Levy, a champion of union rights and blue collar workers, typically from the Sephardic community. By merging Ashkenazi Zionist elements with the bread and butter economic concerns key to winning over blue-collar Sephardim, who are often discriminated by the ruling elite, Likud established itself as uniquely capable of forming a governing coalition.

Rivlin himself is a staunch supporter of settlements in the West Bank and proponent of a one state solution, declaring that the “West Bank settlements are as Israeli as Tel Aviv.” At the same time, his Sephardim support makes him, and other Likud leaders, more qualified to do the kind of bridge building and fence mending that he has championed throughout his career.