Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on Sunday chose the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, home to the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel,
as his first location for a formal visit following his induction.
Less than a month after fights broke out when
rightists undertook the controversial 'flag march'
through the city, Rivlin went so far as to say he would not ask residents to sing the national anthem during his visit.
"I can't require non-Jews to sing 'as long as in all hearts there beats a Jewish spirit'," he said. However, "it is important not to incite against Israel," he added, alluding to repeated extreme statements made by Islamic Movement's leader and city resident Sheikh Raed Salah.
Rivlin said that he chose to visit exactly because of the decades-long Arab-Jewish conflict surrounding the town. Meeting with with Mayor Sheikh Khaled Hamdan, he said "we need to develop a dialogue, to stop sweeping things under the table."
"There are those who say that we need to transfer Umm al-Fahm," the Knesset Speaker said alluding to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's statements from 2007 that certain Arab population centers should be to Palestinian control in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
"Umm al-Fahm is a city in Israel, past, present and future," Rivlin said, adding "I also say this about Jerusalem."
Rivlin, who was accompanied by MK Afu Aghbaria (Hadash) and MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi), insisted that his visit was not directly related to the march, saying that, he did not come "pursuant to, for or against" it.
His visit, described by participants as having a pleasant atmosphere, included such innocuous sites as the local art gallery and museum, which features Palestinian craftsmanship, and a school in the city.
Nonetheless, regional leaders did make a point of bringing up the march. During a meeting, one of the members of the Wadi Ara Regional Council said, "We respect the State of Israel, but you can't expect us to wake up every morning and salute the flag."
Hamdan, making an even more pointed reference to the march, said he welcomed Rivlin with open arms but added that "those who challenge our right to exist here will not be welcomed." He asked the Knesset speaker to advance issues pertaining to the Arab sector in Israel.
Meanwhile, right-wing activists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel, organizers of the flag march, slammed Rivlin for his visit, saying that, "regrettably, the Knesset speaker was folding the flag and arriving for a march of capitulation in front of hostile elements in Israel."
"This sends a message of surrender to those who do not accept the fact that Israel is the home of the Jewish people," they said. The two recently organized a controversial flag-bearing march through the city.
Efrat Weiss contributed to this report