Earlier this month Israeli President Reuven Rivlin invited a group of journalists who write for Jewish publications around the world to his official residence for a pre-Independence Day chat.
Rivlin, whose family has lived in Jerusalem for more than 200 years, said he welcomes input from diaspora Jews, who he called “people who care deeply for the State of Israel.”
Jason Pearlman, Rivlin’s foreign media adviser, said the president’s outreach efforts to the Jewish world “reflect his agenda to reach out and build dialogue” with Israel’s diverse religious and ethnic communities, as well as diaspora Jews.
Rivlin, who comes off as approachable, grandfatherly and heimische, clearly sees his job as something more than merely ceremonial (it is the prime minister who sets policy, not the president).
He has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. Following the recent election, for example, he scolded Prime Minister Netanyahu for running a divisive campaign and begging right-wing voters to vote because Israel’s Arab citizens were “voting in droves.”
In a surprisingly bold statement for a Likud member, Rivlin said during the press briefing that Israel “must negotiate with the Palestinians. I call on President Abbas to come and start and really negotiate a way … to finally bring an end to this tragedy. All of us, Palestinians and Israelis … everyone has to understand we are not doomed to live together. This is our destiny, we have no other choice.
“We can bridge the gaps between us,” he asserted. “This can be a reality, not a dream. This is our mutual interest. We can live in an area that can become really prosperous.”
But for that to happen, Rivlin said, Israel’s Arab neighbors will need to stop questioning Israel’s right to exist.
“We are still doing our best to convince others around us that Israel is a fact. They need to face this as much as we have to face the fact that Israel is a democracy” and that there cannot be a “gap” between Israel’s Jewish and democratic values.
“Those two values are both very dear to us,” Rivlin said, adding that although the Jewish people “have the right to define themselves a nation and just as a religion,” the country must ensure that everyone who is a part of the “Israel experience, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian has the same rights and responsibilities.”
The president said this concept is a tough sell to those who warn that Israel will eventually have an Arab majority and that this poses “a danger” to the Jewish state.
“Arab citizens of Israel are asking, ‘Are we a part of Israel or aren’t we a part of Israel?’ They also have conflicts within themselves between the reality of the State of Israel — their state — and their people,” the Palestinians.
Rivlin emphasized that Israel “has no war with Islam. Nevertheless we have to understand there are fundamentalists [on all sides] setting fires and we’re sitting on the edge of a volcano.”
The Temple Mount, he said, “is very, very holy to the Jewish people” and at the same time “considered very important to Muslims.”
Muslims, he continued, “have to understand we’ve prayed to Jerusalem for the past 2,000 years,” but Jews also must realize that Israel “is the motherland for everyone.”
Rivlin said the challenges Israel faces from the outside world are at least as serious as its internal conflicts.
“We are finding ourselves isolated from the rest of the world” at a time when “Iran is threatening our very existence. We know they mean this. Iran’s ayatollahs are trying to unite the whole Arab world against us.”
The president said he finds it difficult to comprehend how “the whole world believes they have to find a way to [formulate] an [agreement] with the Iranians and live with” Iran’s intransigence, despite the fact that “it is on the threshold” of becoming a country with nuclear weapons.
When Israeli leaders state that Iran is supporting terrorist groups around the Middle East, he said, they are basing their statements on facts.
“Iran is penetrating the region through Hezbollah, Hamas. They are fighting ISIS at the same time they are penetrating Jordan, Libya and even Tunis. Yet the world, and especially the American president, is looking for an arrangement with Iran.”
Given that “the Americans are very important to the existence of Israel, the future of Israel,” the Obama administration’s eagerness to sign a deal is difficult for Israelis to understand.
Rivlin expressed the hope that U.S. lawmakers will continue their “bipartisan support for Israel|” and “cooperate with Israel” on matters mutually vital to their security.
The president said that while Israel is a “safe haven for all Jews … I don’t want them to come because they feel forced” out of their home countries but because it’s the best place to live.”
Asked about the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Rivlin said that only a large influx of Reform and Conservative Jews can change the Orthodox status quo.
When it comes to the definition of who is a Jew, he said, “You can change it if you have the political power. If, for example, 2 million Reform Jews would come to Israel, the law would be changed. Halacha [Jewish law] will never be changed by those who believe in halacha, but Israeli law would be changed.
“For example, [if they voted in] 30 members of Knesset, I’m sure they could change the law,” Rivlin, who attends an Orthodox synagogue, said without commenting on how unlikely that scenario is.
He recalled the day, when he was 9 years old, that the British left Palestine and Israel became a sovereign nation.
“I saw the Israeli flag go up and the British flag come down. “The flag is the symbol of the state of Israel. Now, every time I see the Israeli flag, whether in a school or army or a celebration and hear the national anthem, tears come to my eyes. For me, until today, [Israel’s existence] is something not to be taken for granted,” the president said.