Knesset speaker commences official visit to Ireland


REUVEN RIVLIN, the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, begins an official visit to Ireland today at the invitation of his Irish counterpart, Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil Sean Barrett, who was hosted by Mr Rivlin last July.

Israeli officials are playing up the importance of the visit, noting that such top-level bilateral exchanges are relatively rare. Mr Rivlin has meetings scheduled with President Michael D Higgins, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore who is due to visit Israel next week, and with Seanad Cathaoirleach Senator Paddy Burke. He will also attend sittings of the Dáil and the Seanad, and will be hosted at an official dinner by Mr Barrett.

Mr Rivlin will be accompanied by opposition lawmaker and former minister Yitzhak Herzog, who was last week voted as head of the Labour party Knesset faction. Mr Herzog’s grandfather, Yitzhak (Isaac) Halevy Herzog, served as chief rabbi of Ireland before being appointed chief rabbi in mandate Palestine.

Mr Rivlin, a member of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, was elected for the second time as Knesset speaker in 2009.

He is considered firmly on the right within the Likud. He criticised Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and opposed Mr Netanyahu’s historic U-turn in 2009 when he finally accepted the idea of a Palestinian state. But, speaking to The Irish Timesahead of his visit, Mr Rivlin said a two-state solution would constitute a direct threat to Israel.

“First of all you need agreement between the two peoples, not just between the two governments. This would mean that the other side recognises Israel as a fact. Unfortunately, there is a rejection from the Palestinian side, or should I say from the Islamic side, to accept this. The Knesset endorsed the Oslo peace accords and even prime minister Netanyahu accepted the two-state solution. But, from the other side, there is no acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, and that by creating two states we would be bringing an end to the conflict. Until both peoples come to the realisation that peace is a mutual interest, there will be no peace. Only when the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state will we have peace. ”

Without a two-state solution isn’t there a danger that 20 or 30 years down the line the Jews will be a minority in the area between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan? “When I was nine, I dreamed that in the year 2000 there would be two million Jews here in Israel. Now there are six million Jews living in Israel. In the next 60 years, we will have 12 million Jews, with five or six million Arabs. This could allow us to live together in a democracy still defined as a Jewish state. We are destined to live together. We have to have a state that remains a safe haven for Jews worldwide, with a law of return permitting Jews to immigrate.”

Mr Rivlin is a rare breed of Israeli politician: respected across the political spectrum as honest and fair-minded, he has many friends, even among his fiercest opponents.He has not been afraid to speak up in defence of Israeli democracy, including against attacks from his fellow right-wing legislators.

In 2010, he ignored the advice of a Knesset committee that recommended the removal of Haneen Zoabi, an Israeli-Arab woman lawmaker, for having participated in the Gaza flotilla.

“On some occasions when the government has supported legislation initiated by extremists I have told the prime minister to hold his horses. I opposed a proposal to force Israeli Arabs to sing the national anthem, which has clear Zionist lyrics. I also spoke out against a proposal to ban mosques using loudspeakers for the call to prayer. The innuendo of such a law could be interpreted as being anti-Muslim. We must respect the rights of minorities.”

What about Irish funding of Israeli NGOs? “I think it would confuse the Irish Government if the Israeli government funded Irish NGOs which oppose Irish Government policy. Nevertheless, I uphold freedom of speech. So, unless we are talking about treason, I believe everyone should have the right to express his own ideas and everyone should be allowed to finance such groups.”

What do you hope to achieve from your trip to Ireland? “I have always admired the Irish people and we have a lot in common. Both our nations fought against imperialism for the right to self-determination. I know there is widespread support in Ireland for the Palestinian cause. We would like the Irish to understand that among friends we can agree to disagree. It is legitimate to criticise us but first you must know the facts. They must understand that if a future Palestinian state could threaten the very existence of the state of Israel then we must tread very carefully.”