Netanyahu, Rivlin differ on anti-Semitism in Europe

Separate interviews given by President Reuven Rivlin and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to CNN about European anti-Semitism highlight the differences between them over Israel’s attitude toward the rise of the far right in Europe.

al-monitor Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot attend a graduation ceremony of new Israeli army officers at a base near Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, June 20, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

holocaust, fascism, gideon saar, case 4000, benjamin netanyahu, reuven rivlin, european union, anti-semitism

Dec 4, 2018

They may both belong to the same political party — the Likud — but there is still a long history of personal differences, not to say animosity, between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. “It looks like Netanyahu isn’t my friend,” Rivlin said last February, describing the icy relationship between the two men.

This seems to be why Netanyahu is trying to pass legislation limiting the president’s right to decide which Knesset member will form the next government after elections. Netanyahu fears that Rivlin will use the criminal investigations he is facing — especially now, with Israel Police recommending that he be indicted for bribery in Case 4000 — and hand over to another Likud Knesset member the task of forming the coalition. More specifically, he fears that Rivlin will task former Education Minister Gideon Saar with that mission. And so he initiated the so-called Gideon Saar Law, forcing the president to task only a Knesset member who is also party head with the composition of the coalition. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to approve this week the recent toned-down version of the proposed law, to that effect. Originally, Netanyahu proposed that only the Knesset member who has the most Knesset members’ support could be tasked by the president.

Interviews on the topic of European anti-Semitism, which both men gave recently to CNN, highlight the disagreement they have over Israel’s relationship to Europe’s rising far-right parties. For several years now, Netanyahu has developed close ties with some of those right-wing governments, and some of their leaders have even visited Israel this year. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz visited last June, as did Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in July.

In July 2017, Orban described Adm. Miklos Horthy, who ruled Hungary during the Holocaust, as “an exceptional statesman.” He went on to establish a historical museum that all but ignores the active participation of Hungarians in the massacre of the country’s Jewish population, and he used anti-Semitic tropes against the American-Jewish businessman of Hungarian descent, George Soros, who supported his rival. In a meeting with Netanyahu this past July, Orban spoke more moderately, saying, “We are proud that in Hungary, self-identifying Jews who celebrate and preserve Jewish tradition can feel safe. Hungary has zero tolerance for anti-Semitism … it makes sense that a Hungarian patriot and a Jewish patriot find common ground.’’

In Austria, Kurz formed a coalition with the Freedom Party founded by racist Jorg Haider and now headed by Heinz-Christian Strache. As soon as the coalition was formed, Netanyahu decided that Israeli ties with Austrian ministries held by the Freedom Party would be kept on a professional level only.

In a speech to the Austrian parliament in December 2017 in which he laid out his government’s objectives, Kurz said, “Anti-Semitism has no place in Austria or Europe. We will fight all forms of anti-Semitism with full determination, both those that still exist and those that have been newly imported.” Then, this past July, Strache — who is his deputy — proposed that Austria ban the kosher slaughtering of meat in the country.

Strache himself visited Israel in April 2016 after being invited to the country by certain members of the Likud party. This visit ran counter to the official position of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, but Strache’s hosts insisted that he came to Israel to learn and pointed out that he even paid a visit to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center at Yad Vashem. Nevertheless, then-President Shimon Peres refused to meet with him. Last February, Strache met with Likud Knesset member Yehuda Glick, despite Netanyahu’s position on the matter.

In October 2017, sources in the Likud invited Strache for another visit to Israel. President Rivlin condemned the invitation, saying, “This is a strange attempt to link up with the far right in Europe. … Different groups are attempting to forge alliances and relationships with xenophobic and anti-Semitic parties and groups, who support the State of Israel, at least ostensibly. It is up to us, the generation closest to the Holocaust, to be loud and clear about this: No interest whatsoever could justify a shameful alliance with groups and factors that fail to recognize their responsibilities for the crimes of the Holocaust, who work to silence that history, and whose vision includes repeating the atrocities against every foreigner, refugee or immigrant.”

A survey conducted by CNN last September in seven countries across Europe found that half of the respondents in France and Germany believed that anti-Semitism is a growing problem in their countries. Some 28% of all respondents answered that Jews wield too much influence on the global economy. Meanwhile, 34% said that they had never heard about the Holocaust or knew very little about it, while 32% believe that Jews use the Holocaust to advance their own agendas.

As a result of this survey, CNN conducted separate interviews with President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Rivlin, who represents more liberal views, said in his interview on Nov. 29, “Neo-fascist movements have a great influence on the hearts of people around the world. There are countries where it is returning, and it is very dangerous. And these same neo-fascist movements are movements that very much admire … the State of Israel.” Rivlin went on to state unequivocally that he opposes granting legitimacy to these movements, even if they admire the State of Israel and support its policies. As he put it, “Someone who is neo-fascist is truly a person who is against the spirit, the principles and the values of the State of Israel. … It is clear as daylight. … Anti-Semitism is a presence in society that corrupts society itself. We try to explain to the whole world that if you don’t fight against anti-Semitism, it will hit your societies.”

In Netanyahu’s interview with CNN, the prime minister claimed that European anti-Semitism is “new anti-Semitism that comes from the extreme left and also the radical Islamic pockets in Europe.” He added, “The idea that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist is the ultimate anti-Semitism today.”

When asked about the dissonance between the struggle against anti-Semitism and diplomatic cooperation with governments that use anti-Semitic imagery, Netanyahu denied any anti-Semitic tones in the discourses of Orban and Kurz. He went on to say that Orban established a center to combat anti-Semitism in Hungary, while Kurz organized a conference on battling anti-Semitism. The real problem, Netanyahu repeated, is with those who deny Israel the right to exist. He called it the most severe form of anti-Semitism.

It seems as if Netanyahu’s position on the issue is based on the open support for Israel shown by leaders such as Orban and Kurz, and on promises (by at least some of them) to move their countries’ embassies to Jerusalem, just as US President Donald Trump did.

Speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry explained that Netanyahu wants to change the position of the European Union toward Iran. So far, the EU has stuck to the agreement and has even helped the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran get around American sanctions. The official added that Netanyahu is walking a narrow tightrope, but also that he is prepared to pay the price of damaging the struggle against anti-Semitism among the neo-fascist European right in exchange for a chance to shift the EU's policies toward the Middle East.

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