Israel Elects a One-State President

AP Photo/Dan Balilty

Israeli presidential candidates and former ministers Meir Shitrit, center right, and Reuven Rivlin, center left, hug during the presidential election at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June, 10, 2014. The Israeli parliament selected Reuven Rivlin as the country's next president to succeed the outgoing Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who brought the position international prestige.

Rubi Rivlin, who was elected president of Israel on Tuesday, isn't a stereotypical hardline rightist. To start with, he's not grim. As a talk-show guest, he out-jokes the host. Besides that, as speaker of parliament during the term before this one, he regularly refused to play ball with his own Likud Party and other parties of the right. He did his best to block bills aimed against human-rights groups, the Arab minority and free speech. He accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to undermine parliamentary democracy.

All the same, Rivlin believes adamantly, absolutely, in the right's principle of political faith: that Israel has an obligation to keep the Whole Land of Israel, meaning every centimeter of soil it now holds. Over time, a series of other Likud politicians have faced the contradiction between democracy and ruling over the Palestinians of the occupied territories, and have concluded that Israel must seek a two-state solution. Rivlin once described this as the equivalent of an ultra-Orthodox Jew turning his back on religion. To avoid this heresy, Rivlin has declared that Israel should annex the West Bank and give the Palestinians citizenship. He has become a one-stater.

Israel's president, I should note, has the same role as the queen does in England, albeit at lower cost and with less pomp. (Israelis, in general, don't do pomp.) The president is the head of state, but the prime minister runs things. Outgoing President Shimon Peres, however, has amply shown that even a ceremonial head of state can become the public face of a policy alternative. In Peres's case, that alternative has been pursuing a two-state agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even as Netanyahu has dodged and stonewalled.

 

In Rivlin's case, his very election is likely to focus attention on the small number of prominent right-wingers who in recent years have proposed annexation and a one-state solution. Abroad more than in Israel, Rivlin may mistakenly be seen as a symbol of new and surprising support for the idea that the only possible democratic outcome for Israelis and Palestinians is a binational state. But the one-staters of the right aren't at all interested in binationalism. And at closer examination, they aren't proposing a true shared democracy.

A word first about how Rivlin won: The politics were poisonously personal. The president is elected on a secret ballot by the 120 members of the Knesset for a single seven-year term.  If there are multiple candidates and no one wins 61 votes in the first round, balloting continues. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu was so bitterly opposed to Rivlin, the only contender from his own party, that he suggested eliminating the office of president altogether. When no one bought that idea, he endorsed Rivlin with all the sincerity of Mark Antony endorsing Brutus. Then he reportedly pressed Likud Knesset members to vote for Meir Shitreet, the centrist candidate who made it to the run-off. Rivlin's record as speaker of parliament, along with Netanyahu's open enmity, brought him enough votes from the center and left, including the Arab parties, to put him over the top. Score this: Rubi 1, Bibi 0. (Officially, Rivlin's first name is Reuven, but it's unlikely anyone has called him that to his face since his circumcision ceremony when he was eight days old.)

The result, though, is that Israel has a folksy, friendly president who "would prefer for the Palestinians to be citizens of this country rather than divide the land." In a speech as Knesset speaker in 2012 (posted on his Hebrew Facebook page) Rivlin declared that "in the Land of Israel, whether we like it or not, both Jews and Arabs live. Thus any diplomatic solution based on separation is not feasible." You can't fault him for lack of chutzpah; he gave this speech at memorial ceremony for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed for his commitment to the opposite view.

Before you think Rivlin has turned his back on the right, pay attention to the continuation of the speech: Rivlin said he viewed "partition and conceding our historic right to the Whole Land as danger even greater than a binational state." Faithful to the teachings of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the pre-state founder of the Zionist right, Rivlin said, "the right speaks of one state with a solid Jewish majority… a truly Jewish state and a truly democratic state."

In that speech, Rivlin didn't say much more about how he expected Jews to maintain a "solid majority" other than to express confidence that it was somehow possible. Earlier, though, in a 2010 interview with journalist Noam Sheizaf, he tossed out the idea that "one could establish a system… in which Judea and Samaria are jointly held. The Jews would vote for a Jewish parliament and the Palestinians for an Arab parliament."

Read as a serious proposal, this means that the West Bank would still be defined as a separate territory, and Palestinians living there wouldn't vote for a shared parliament. But Rivlin added that he didn't expect any agreement "as long as Islamic fundamentalism thinks that Jews are forbidden to settle" on sacred ground. The subtext: Rivlin is committed to the three principles of the Whole Land, democracy, and a Jewish nation-state. He doesn't know how to fit them together; he doesn't expect change any time soon; and when Israel does annex the West Bank, it may have to create a regime that is democratic on the surface but denies Palestinians power.

Other right-wing one-staters have presented more detailed arguments. The most vocal of them until his death last month from cancer was Uri Elitzur, a journalist and settlement leader who served as Netanyahu's chief of staff in the late 1990s. Before annexing the West Bank, he said, Israel should adopt a constitution declaring it a Jewish state and preventing changes in the Law of Return, which gives any Jew the right to immigrate to Israel. He also adopted a common tactic on the right, distorting population statistics to fit his desires. Call it demography denial. Elitzur tossed out an artificially low figure for Palestinians of voting age in the West Bank. He ignored the fact that the Palestinian median age is much lower than the Israeli median, which means that the number of Palestinian voters will grow more quickly. At most, he concluded, Palestinians would make up a sixth of the parliament of the single state, not enough to challenge Jewish dominion.

Uri Ariel, the current housing minister, proposes that Palestinians would have to wait five years to apply for citizenship, as if they were immigrants in their own country. To qualify, they'd have to show knowledge of Hebrew and swear allegiance to Israel. The single state would change its electoral system, designing voting districts to reduce Palestinian political power. (You also can't fault him for failing to learn from American democracy.) Likud Knesset Member Tzipi Hotovely, another one-stater, counts on a million Jewish immigrants arriving in order to maintain the Jewish majority. It doesn't occur to her that Western Jews might not be attracted to a country riven by internal struggle between a dominant ethnic group and a disempowered one. She, like the others, leaves Gaza out of the picture, as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can end with no change in the besieged coastal enclave.

What Rivlin and the rest share is professed confidence that a single state from river to sea can be both democratic and Jewish, with a large Palestinian population that is denied national rights. I'll give Rivlin the benefit of the doubt and assume he is fooling himself rather than trying to fool everyone else; I can't say the same of the others. They do share a certain brazenness with those Palestinian one-staters who hope that with a narrow Palestinian majority, they can have a Palestinian state.

In reality, neither group is giving up its national aspirations, and creating a single state would mean continuing the conflict under new conditions. To the extent that President Rivlin becomes a symbol of the potential for a one-state solution, he will be the friendly, good-humored symbol of a dangerous illusion. 

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