The election campaign has turned particularly nasty in the last few days. With six weeks to go until we vote, newspapers and TV news broadcasts are leading with allegations of personal corruption on the part of the prime minister and his wife — including the “Bottlegate” affair, in which Sara Netanyahu is alleged to have pocketed the accumulated small change from thousands of bottle deposits — and Likud counter-allegations that the rival Zionist Camp is illegally benefiting from financial contributions via the anti-Netanyahu activism of the V15 activists’ group.
Illegalities have remade Israel’s leadership more than once in the past. Yitzhak Rabin resigned as prime minister in 1977 when it emerged that he and his wife Leah had failed to close their US bank account on the completion of his term as ambassador in Washington four years earlier — in breach of the law. Ehud Olmert resigned as prime minister six years ago mired in corruption allegations, some since proven, others still in legal play.
However, Stav Shaffir, a leader of the 2011 social justice protests who joined the Labor party, won election in 2013 and sat on the ultra-powerful Finance Committee in the outgoing Knesset, alleges that corruption in government runs far, far deeper than the relatively petty infractions of the Rabins and, allegedly, the Netanyahus. She says the entire process by which the 320 billion shekel ($80 billion) national budget is allocated and approved is corrupt, and has been for decades. She says the Knesset is demonstrably incapable of reining in such abuse, and has turned in desperation to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to grapple with her incendiary allegations at a hearing later this month.
Shaffir, of course, has a political agenda. She’s number four on the opposition Zionist Camp list — behind Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich — for the March 17 elections, and strident in her denunciations of the Netanyahu government. She’s witheringly critical of its ostensible failures to tackle socioeconomic inequality, to deal with the fate of tens of thousands of migrants, to advance a diplomatic process with the Arab world, and to prevent Israel’s growing isolation. In short, she accuses the Israeli right of having “emptied Zionism of its content.”
‘Our democratic system relies on a balance between the government, parliament and the judiciary, and it’s broken. The Knesset is the weakest. It can legislate, but it can’t oversee government effectively’
A three-minute speech she gave on the subject in the Knesset last month seems to have struck a chord with at least part of the electorate, gaining tens of thousands of Internet views. Leading off with those allegations of corrupt mis-allocation of government funds, she set out her agenda succinctly and passionately, as a handful of MKs watched closely and others chatted unmoved: “Real Zionism means taking care of the weakest members of society,” Shaffir asserted, eyes blazing. “Real Zionism is solidarity — not only in battle, but also in the day-to-day. Looking after each other. That’s what being Israeli is. That’s what Zionism is: to take care of the future of Israel’s citizens — in the hospitals, in the schools, on the roads, and in social welfare. That’s Zionism, and you’re destroying it,” she charged of those she called her “friends” on the political right.
“When we sing the national anthem, ‘Hatikva'” — The Hope — she went on, “we sing it with all the meaning of the word… for a politics of peace, for a politics that wants to fix the relationships among the various parts of society… That’s the real Zionism. That’s ‘The Hope.’ If Netanyahu were to write the national anthem,” she concluded, “we’d probably have to call it The Anthem of Despair.”
Late last week, in an interview in a quiet corner of a bustling Tel Aviv cafe, I got the hour-long version of that three-minute cri de coeur.
A pipeline of corrupt funding
Shaffir was sitting with her back to me when I arrived at the cafe, and though the carrot-colored hair is fairly unmistakable, I wasn’t completely sure it was her because she’s just so slight. A revolutionary waif.
She said she hadn’t been sure about a Knesset career. One of a triumvirate of social-protest leaders who led what became the tent-camp village on Rothschild Street demanding affordable housing and a more equitable society, which led to rallies attended by hundreds of thousands, she and Itzik Shmuli joined Labor and soared, while Dafni Leef, who had initiated the campaign, opted not to enter the fray.
‘People told me, Don’t get into this. You don’t understand this. You’re a nudnik. But it stunk’
“I was uncertain about getting into politics,” said Shaffir as she stirred her coffee. “I thought there was too much corruption and too little practical impact. But then I felt you can’t have the ‘privilege’ of thinking like that. I was nine when [Yitzhak Rabin] was assassinated. I grew up in a non-ideological political climate with ministers and presidents in jail, and prime ministers on their way to jail — politicians not serving the public, quite the opposite. I realized, if it’s corrupt, I have to try and stop it. And after a few months on the Knesset Finance Committee, it was clear to me that it was corrupt.”
She joined Labor, she said, because she “wanted to be in a democratic party and to prove that young people can get stuff done.” And once elected to the Knesset two years ago — at 27, Israel’s youngest ever female MK — she wanted to sit on the Finance Committee because she wanted to be able to allocate funds to solve social inequalities. “There were brilliant people on that committee,” she said. Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Shas’s Itzik Cohen. Likud MK, now president, Reuven Rivlin. “People with huge experience. I took a vow of silence for the first few months, but every night I opened the books and I went into the budget to try and understand it.”
The way Shaffir tells it, she discovered that the entire overt process of earnestly examining and objecting to and voting on government funding allocations is a farce that obscures fraud. She realized this, she said, in the summer of 2013, when members were summoned to an emergency meeting by committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party. “I asked him, ‘Why are we meeting today?’ He said, ‘It’s only technical. We vote and go home.’ We only saw the material [that was being presented for approval] that day.”
What they were voting on, she said, was essentially an entirely different budget: “This has been a practice for 30 years: Transferring money to different areas, tens of billions of shekels, essentially changing the whole budget.”
The annual budget totals some 320 billion shekels, some 87% of which is essentially fixed, leaving 13% which is discretionary, according to Shaffir. Almost anything that can be reallocated is reallocated, and unjustly so, she says — via what she calls “a pipeline” of corrupt funding, which sees those tens of billions of shekels transferred, “without any real controls,” from the areas for which they were originally earmarked to all manner of bodies and organizations run by friends and colleagues and special interest groups, nodded through in the committee by MKs who have no way of knowing what they’re voting for.
An example from 2013: “I found 1.5 billion shekels that were being moved from the National Insurance Institute to the Defense Ministry.” Nothing wrong with funding the Defense Ministry, she noted; everything wrong with the way it was done. Another example: “Huge sums sent to the Settlement Division, which is meant to handle the needs of the periphery and which for historical reasons is not obligated to provide reports on its financial activities. It was supposed to get 58 million shekels, it wound up getting 600 million. I kept asking, ‘What’s this money for?’ and being told that I was impertinent. We looked into it: 75% of the money was going to Judea and Samaria and only 25% to the Negev, the Galilee and the Golan. The settlement of Beit El was getting more than the Negev and the Galilee put together. The settlement of Eli was getting more than the Golan. It’s a question of priorities and transparencies…”
“I found a 37 million shekel ‘security grant’ for Judea and Samaria, which has been paid annually since 2009 in compensation for the ‘lost city taxes’ that were not paid on housing that didn’t get built because of the 10-month settlement freeze” ordered by Netanyahu between November 2009 and September 2010. “That’s ridiculous. No local council anywhere else would be paid government compensation for lost taxes on houses that didn’t get built.”
“I’m not saying don’t allocate funds,” Shaffir stressed. “But you need to allocate fairly. Sderot shouldn’t get less than Elkana. We found documents showing funding transferred on the basis that some of it would then be illegally allocated to the Settlers Council. By the way, [Jewish Home party leader] Naftali Bennett was head of the Council at the time.”
Shaffir said she saw “tens of millions of shekels were being piped to private NGOs, some of them run by Jewish Home officials.” And she charged that the current scandal engulfing Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which has seen some three dozen arrests, the resignation of a deputy minister, and spiraling allegations of kickbacks and bribes, involves exactly the same system.
“You need an army to fight this,” she said. “People told me, ‘Don’t get into this. You don’t understand this. You’re a nudnik.’ But it stunk. You’re a new MK. You want to legislate, but I found this very gray area, very technical, very problematic.”
Shaffir said she recruited 120 volunteers to research the budget. They’d comb through each week’s material as it was submitted by the Treasury to the committee. They got help building computer programs and apps to enable them to understand the material more efficiently. And they got obstructed constantly by the Finance Ministry. “You won’t believe the excuses I heard,” she said, when she sought information on the destination of funding. “They’d tell us, ‘It’s private’ or ‘We can’t find the e-mail.’ It stunk.”
Initially, Shaffir said she turned to the Knesset’s own legal authorities, then to the state comptroller, and ultimately to the Supreme Court. “When I realized that this was breaking the law, I went to the Supreme Court last summer.” A hearing is scheduled for later this month.
Her dissent made headlines again in recent weeks when, as the Knesset was dissolving, Finance Committee head Slomiansky convened a series of meetings and pushed through vast allocations of funding that some committee members said they were required to vote on without knowing where the money was really going. Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, horrified, detailed the saga in our dispiriting interview in late December, “What really goes on in the Knesset? Dov Lipman’s inside story.” Shaffir, possibly less polite than American-raised Rabbi Lipman, was thrown out of the meetings several times and ultimately barred from one session.
Why had all those veteran legislators allowed this foul process to persist? “I’m not accusing the veteran MKs of failure,” Shaffir said. “Most MKs have good intentions, but plenty have benefited from this — not financially, but in terms of their careers.
Why didn’t Yair Lapid, a finance minister ostensibly dedicated to fighting social inequality and advocating for clean government, put a stop to it? “He wasn’t brave enough to fight it,” she charged. “He knew full well this was happening. I sent letters. I spoke out in the plenum. I asked him. He knew.” (Yesh Atid chose not to respond to these allegations.)
She said she turned to the Supreme Court “as a last resort,” when it became clear to her that the Knesset is incapable of properly keeping tabs on what the government is up to, a central part of its role. “Our democratic system relies on a balance between the government, parliament and the judiciary, and it’s broken,” she said. “The Knesset is the weakest. It can legislate, but it can’t oversee government effectively. It doesn’t have the tools. The government bypasses the Knesset and by extension the public. MKs and ministers have skewed the law.
The money illegally allocated, she charged, “could have fixed many of the social problems: Poverty, seven times over. Housing. Covered the deficits in hospitals, helped the south and the north, all those businesses down south devastated after Operation Protective Edge. So many things. Instead I see billions thrown into the garbage.”
Shaffir believes the malaise can be fixed — needless to say, if her party forms the next government. “It’s not a natural disaster. It needs political courage,” she said.
She’s worked with the Israel Democracy Institute and with a series of former ministry directors-general and budget chiefs — “those who would agree to sit with me” — and built a program of reform. “Herzog and Livni have promised to implement it.”
‘There’s an Arab peace initiative on the table. We can have a page full of reservations about it. But it’s a document for cooperation from moderate Arab states’
Is this same kind of skewed system being used in the allocation of land for housing, exacerbating the crisis? “I fear it is duplicated in other fields,” she said. “People think we suffer from lousy bureaucracy or chaos, but actually it’s amazing how well organized it is. What we need is transparency over the allocation of land, in the housing and construction industry, in the Israel Lands Authority.
“Where there isn’t transparency there is potential for corruption,” she said simply. “Apart from on issues of national security, you have to have full transparency. Where people don’t want transparency, it can only be because they’re hiding things.”
Personally, Shaffir said she’s doing her transparent best. She issued a declaration of assets (hatzharot hon) that marks her out as the least well-off member of the outgoing Knesset, publishes a record of the hours she works, and was one of a reported eight MKs who refused a pay raise this year. “We’re publicly elected officials. the public has a right to know what we’re doing,” she said.
Seize the (peace) initiative
While Shaffir made her reputation campaigning for social justice, she has strong views, too, on the diplomatic process. In her early 20s after army service (initially in the pilot’s course, and then as a reporter at IDF magazine BaMahane), she was a participant in a City University of London program called Olive Tree with young Palestinians. They disagreed a lot and argued incessantly, she said. This may have impacted her suggested way forward.
She said Israel must think ahead, must seek an agreement, because “if we can’t, we have a long-term problem.” She cited the demographic argument that requires Israel to separate from the Palestinians in order to maintain a state both Jewish and democratic, and urged that Israel “enter talks from today’s position of strength, not isolation and sanctions, which is where we’re headed.”
With Mahmoud Abbas, who accused Israel from the UN podium of genocide? “We can’t choose our enemies. We are a strong state with a strong army. We’re facing the Iranian threat, Islamic State, the Palestinians. We know that Israel’s place in the Middle East is complex, challenging. The question is how to act.”
While Netanyahu thinks the Palestinian conflict can be managed, at least for a few years, she said, “he also knows that’s not the solution. In our party we’re more rational,” she claimed. “Citizens don’t feel safe, not in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or the Gaza-adjacent communities, not with war every eight months to two years and lives lost. International isolation will grow, sanctions will be inescapable.”
But Shaffir does not advocate yet another attempt at peacemaking focused initially at finding viable compromise with Abbas. “There’s an Arab peace initiative on the table,” she noted, referencing the Saudi-drafted proposal. “We can have a page full of reservations about it. But it’s a document for cooperation from moderate Arab states. It provides for land swaps. We have to show readiness, and the prime minister hasn’t even addressed it.”
Is she suggesting working with the Arab world and not Abbas? “We can’t avoid Abbas, but we have to be ready to negotiate on the basis of the API. There are more than two sides. We need the other players. The Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, the US and Europe. It will pressure him towards compromise. It’s safer for us.”
Even for an Israeli public that’s all too familiar with security threats, she said, “things are really bad now. I want my children to have a better situation. [The lack of security] doesn’t need to be permanent. But we’re not in negotiations, we’re not showing willingness, and the pressure [on Israel] will grow.”
She faulted the government, too, for failing to bolster ties with Israel’s 22% Arab minority, citing drastic, self-defeating inequalities in funding for Arab education, which, she charged, the Treasury has done its best to cover up. “It is such an Israeli interest for them to have a sense of stake in this country,” she said.
‘I had Likudnikim volunteering for me in my primary campaign’
So would she support having the newly united Arab party in the governing coalition (even though its leadership has announced that it would refuse any such offer)? For the first time in the interview, Shaffir was evasive. “Lots of things will change, she said. “What Liberman built is going to make a change,” she added, apparently referencing the foreign minister’s successful push to raise the threshold for Knesset representation to 3.25%, thereby threatening the Arab parties with extinction, forcing them to unite, and potentially boosting their parliamentary strength. Pushed on the issue of Arab MKs in government, she said the coalition would need to set its clear conditions and principles, which any party joining would have to meet.
Shaffir said she was “sure” Zionist Camp will win the elections, naturally, and that she felt the desire for change everywhere she went in the country, north and south and not only in Tel Aviv. “People are fed up with Netanyahu,” she said. “They see our party as stable, with a tradition, offering hope of a different reality, an impressive group of people.”
She ascribed Zionist Camp’s relative surge in the polls — though Netanyahu, at this writing, still seems potentially better placed to form the next government — in part to Herzog’s insistence on sitting in the opposition, and giving the public a sense of alternative. “Netanyahu had created this sense that people will always vote for him, that people have gotten used to him. It became hard to imagine a different leadership, but we decided to be an opposition. We were offered all kinds of encouragements [to join the government], but we wouldn’t cooperate,” she said. “During the 2011 protests, the Israeli public, for a few months, returned to believing in itself, to believing that things can change. And now again, dissatisfaction with Netanyahu is prominent, even among Likud supporters. I had Likudnikim volunteering for me in my primary campaign.”
I asked her how she could reconcile that passionate Knesset speech about Zionism last month with the report, which features on her Hebrew Wikipedia page, that she objected to singing Hatkiva at the end of 2011 social protest rallies, because the anthem doesn’t represent all Israelis. Shaffir shook her head in irritation. “Absolute rubbish,” she said. “People disseminate lies.”
Can’t she change the page? “No, you can’t do that,” she said, asserting that political rivals were behind a campaign of disinformation against her and some of her colleagues. “They can’t defend what they’re doing, so they attack us,” she said. “It shows how desperate and scared they are.”
In praise of pragmatic Zionism
She then elaborated on that Knesset speech, recalling that “Zionism was always pragmatic: In the short term, solving problems. In the long term, to build a state, a right given to very few in history. You can’t only think of the present. You have to think of the future,” she said.
At once fired up and rhetorically focused, she then delivered what amounted to the next section of that speech, with quiet fervor, over our coffee cups: “The definition of Zionism was the right of the Jewish people to a place of their own and independence,” she began, “and it was also a movement that would not accept that things are impossible. All can be achieved. The only question is, how.
‘When we protested, Bibi mocked us. We called for affordable housing, affordable public transport. Bibi answered, be glad you’re alive and stop moaning’
“But the political right is Zionism without content. Can it be better here? No. Can ordinary people manage here financially? No. When we protested, Bibi mocked us. We called for affordable housing, affordable public transport. Bibi answered, be glad you’re alive and stop moaning. Fear and that’s it; we can’t change the situation, we can’t ensure security. They’ve taken Zionism to a place where Bennett is prepared to relinquish security for the sake of a few hills in the West Bank. He’ll give Israeli citizenship to hundreds of thousands.”
I pointed out that Bennett says only 70,000 Palestinians live in the 60 percent of the West Bank he wants to annex. “The army says hundreds of thousands,” she retorted. “Hamas activists among them. Bennett says fine. To endanger Israel to retain every hill. It’s not pragmatic.
“I’m glad Zionism is one of the issues of this campaign,” she went on. “Far-right Zionism is to hate the world and be different from the rest. Real Zionism is to ensure the well-being of the state in the long-term. And for that, we can’t be at odds with the world. We have to bring the world to us, have them support us, be our partners.”
Shaffir wasn’t done. She highlighted Israel as “a special society, an ingathering of exiles. Jews and non-Jews, a Jewish country and a democracy, with equal rights for minorities.” She said we have to close the social gulfs because they create “real dangers for the continued existence of our society. Social cohesion is critical. It has to be a goal. That’s part of today’s Zionism.”
She returned to the issue of discrimination in education, highlighting relative over-funding in the state religious system. She suggested grappling with the tens of thousands of migrants via a proper evaluation process of their refugee claims, incentives for potential employers, and having them replace imported foreign workers in such fields as construction and agriculture. She spoke of the Zionist imperative to be “a light unto the nations, as a model society.” She was dismissive of the Netanyahu demand for Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, declaring, “We don’t need the Palestinians’ permission to be here. Why ask Abbas if we have the right to be here? We’re here, it’s a fact.”
It was a bravura performance for an audience of one, delivered from the gut. Hearing Shaffir in full flow, it became easy to understand how she played a central role in galvanizing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets in 2011, and how she both soared into the Knesset and into the higher ranks of Labor. Like or loathe her politics, her determination to reinvigorate Zionism, to offer hope, and to tackle corruption seemed admirable, genuine, overdue. Indeed, Shaffir came across as an antidote to politics as it has been practiced here by too many of late — an antidote to the toxic corruption that has demonstrably extended into the highest offices in the land, with a prime minister convicted and sentenced to jail for bribe-taking, and a police force and a judiciary overwhelmed by the sheer volume of alleged fraud, graft and sleaze.
What is “terrible” about the routine dishonesty she uncovered at the Knesset Finance Committee, Shaffir said early in the conversation, “is that it’s state-sponsored corruption. We can fight criminal corruption, but this is the state.”
It was the only time in the interview that her voice really rose into a wail. A wail of disillusion. Of a young person’s faith in the essential decency of her elders, shattered. But also, critically, replaced by a determination to fight and to repair.