In a farewell interview Friday, retiring longtime Likud legislator Yuval Steinitz said the state of political discourse has left him worried for the future of Israeli democracy.
Steinitz acknowledged to Channel 12 that his previously very close relations with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had cooled somewhat in recent years, and was critical of Likud’s repeated savaging of the police, prosecutors and courts over Netanyahu’s criminal trial.
But he also stressed that “all sides” were guilty of the deterioration in discourse, and when asked, said he still believed Netanyahu was most qualified to lead the country.
The departing MK’s wife, Justice Gila Kanfi-Steinitz, was appointed to the Supreme Court earlier this year. She was previously vice president of Jerusalem District Court, where Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases.
“Israeli politics is not in a good state,” Steinitz said. “It’s always been heated and tempestuous, as far back as [David] Ben-Gurion and [Menachem] Begin. There have been bad times in the past, but in the past 20 years we thought there was some moderation”
However, he argued that “in the past two years we’ve seen opposite processes that I must say are for the first time leaving me worried for the future of Israeli democracy. Everything has become violent and vulgar on all sides. There has been very harsh language.”
Steinitz said he “really disliked” the radicalization in politics, from what he said was both sides of the specrrum. “I at least tried — beyond a few missteps, one of the things I’m proud of is that for 23 years I did not employ such a style,” he said.
On Netanyahu’s vociferous attacks against Israel’s justice system, Steinitz said: “I agree with some of Netanyahu’s criticism on how he has been treated by the police, the prosecution.
“And yet I don’t agree with the style of some of my friends and I said it in real-time. We’re not here to destroy [institutions]. There is no democratic country without police, prosecutors, courts and a supreme court.”
Steinitz was circumspect in his comments on the state of his relations with Netanyahu, saying it was “natural” that the two were not as close as they had once been. “There are ups and downs in relationships between all people. In the last three years, we haven’t been as close as before,” he said.
But he argued that during his tenure holding the finance, energy and intelligence portfolios, his cooperation with Netanyahu “brought huge achievements for the people of Israel, in the economy, in energy, and in security.”
And asked if he still believed Netanyahu should lead the country, the departing MK said: “I think when you look at the candidates, Netanyahu is the most qualified, strongest and most experienced candidate to lead Israel.”
Steinitz also commented on the Iranian nuclear threat, saying it was “immensely concerning.”
“I want to use the opportunity of this interview, even though it’s a parting interview, to sound a serious warning to ourselves and mainly to the US and [US President Joe] Biden who’s coming here next week: This is crunch time. Iran in the past year has for the first time been enriching uranium to 60 percent,” he said.
“Biden’s visit here is very nice, and if there are embraces and meetings that’s nice, and if there will be some [diplomatic breakthrough] with Saudi Arabia that’s all very well and good — but it’s all nothing, nothing if Iran gets nuclear weapons.”
Steinitz announced this week that he was leaving politics, 23 years after entering the Knesset and just weeks before the opposition’s leading party holds its primaries in anticipation of Israel’s November general election.
Citing the need for “some fresh air,” Steinitz closes a political career that included 12 consecutive years as head of five ministries, most significantly as finance minister from Likud’s 2009 return to power to 2013, and energy minister from 2015 to Likud’s fall into the opposition in 2021.
Throughout his years in government and in the Knesset, Steinitz garnered a reputation as a solid, principled lawmaker, who while consistently placing high on the Likud slate was never seen as a threat to Netanyahu for the party’s leadership.
Thanking the Likud party and Israeli citizens “for the rare privilege that has fallen to me to serve the homeland and to influence issues concerning the existence and prosperity of the state,” Steinitz said he would continue to help in the upcoming election in order to help establish “a quality national government led by Netanyahu and Likud.”
Shortly after Steinitz made his announcement, Netanyahu — who had been previously informed — called the former finance minister a “loyal partner in the successful economic policy in which we led Israel to the best decade in its history.”
Netanyahu also claimed credit, with Steinitz, in “a joint struggle to get the gas out of the water,” which he said “has brought tens of billions to the citizens of Israel.”
As energy minister, Steinitz led efforts to develop the offshore Leviathan natural gas field, which started production in 2019.
In addition to helping run the natural gas field development process, Steinitz said he was proud of leading Israel into the OECD, his handling of the 2009-2012 global financial crisis, and his part in uncovering the Syrian nuclear program.
As well as serving as finance, energy, strategic affairs, intelligence, and international relations minister in periods between 2009 to 2021, Steinitz chaired the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 2003 to 2006.
Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.