When it comes to criticizing the coalition, Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharar, who describes herself as “opposition at heart,” doesn’t hold back.
Elharar believes the current Knesset’s public discourse is more hateful and inflammatory than in years past, even for Israel’s famously combative politicians. She says the justice minister’s controversial NGO bill, which would label human rights groups funding primarily by foreign governments, may “burn international ties,” and has “not one good word to say” about Likud MK Yoav Kisch’s similar “foreign agent moles” bill. She also maintains that the Breaking the Silence NGO has lost its way — though she says some of their allegations against IDF soldiers are probably true — and insists the proposed legislation to shutter all businesses on Shabbat is a disaster.
But asked whether Israel’s democracy is imperiled, the lawmaker unapologetically rolls her eyes.
“I’m a big believer in the State of Israel, and I haven’t given up hope. I think this is a difficult wave, but we will withstand it and remain a democratic state,” she says.
Speaking to The Times of Israel from her Knesset office, Elharar, at once empathetic and unflinchingly direct, opines that the Knesset is increasingly divided along partisan lines. She says the opposition is too fractured to unite against the narrow coalition and categorically rules out joining the current government.
Elharar, who is wheelchair-bound and suffers from muscular dystrophy, also says Israel beats the US in its services for people with disabilities, but falls far behind countries such as Canada and Sweden. Her top legislative priority at the moment is securing state recognition of foster families. And to Diaspora Jewry, her message is: “Don’t give up on us.”
‘Wanted to be Ally Mcbeal’
Elharar, 38, who entered the Knesset in 2013, says she never dreamed of being a lawmaker — she wanted to be “Ally Mcbeal.” Born to what she describes as a “classic middle-class family” in the central city of Holon, at the age of 13 she decided she wanted to pursue a career in law.
After graduating law school, Elharar volunteered at a local legal aid organization, and there, she says: “I discovered the ‘other,’” namely Israel’s impoverished. “They weren’t in my neighborhood, and if they were, I didn’t see them. I lived in this pleasant bubble,” she says.
“And then I said, I have two options, I can be a lawyer in an office in a tall tower with a seaside view. And then I’ll make someone rich a little richer. Or I can really change people’s lives.” Elharar also worked at Bar-Ilan University for several years, and it was her “most famous student” there who later introduced her to Yair Lapid: former education minister and ex-fellow Yesh Atid member Shai Piron.
When forming the Yesh Atid party, Lapid called her and said “I remember you, that you wanted to change the world,” Elharar says. She joined the party.
Now married and the mother of a two-year-old boy, Elharar heads the Knesset’s State Control Committee, which examines the implementation of the State Comptroller reports, covering everything from overseeing the Israel Electric Corporation’s uprooting of trees to the preparedness of the Home Front for war (on the latter, she notes: “The Home Front is not ready. Period.” And if there’s a war tomorrow? “Then good luck. I hope everyone knows how to pray, and has someone who answers them.”)
Topping her legislative agenda is a bill that would give legal status to foster families in Israel, including relatives. The bill is currently being prepared for its second and third readings. “In Israel, interestingly, as compared to the world, 80 percent of children are in [social welfare] institutions and only 20 percent are in foster care. In the world, it’s precisely the opposite,” she says.
“The most problematic area is foster parents who are relatives. It happens a lot, but they aren’t recognized. No one is going to be a foster parent solely for the ridiculous sum of money, which comes late and is really absurd, and doesn’t match the needs at all… but if the nuclear, biological family says they’ll do it, it’s good for the child to remain in their natural environment… support them.”
Elharar also advocates for Israelis with disabilities, but says “regardless of whatever legislation we pass, in the end, what really makes the difference is awareness and [shattering] stigmas.” And the stigmas still exist, she says.
“Compared to Canada, the situation is really dire. Compared to the United States, the situation is okay,” she says of the services provided to people with disabilities and accessibility. “Our law is terrific, but the implementation is problematic.”
“And we’re not even aspiring to Canada, we’re aspiring to Sweden. There, it’s really a utopia.”
‘Violent, disrespectful discourse’
Elharar recently made headlines after Likud MK Oren Hazan mocked her disability and accused a lawmaker assisting her of double voting. In response, Elharar shouted across the plenum: “garbage,” and “die.” (Hazan subsequently filed an ethics complaint against Elharar, but it was dropped by the committee, while the Likud rookie MK was suspended for a month over a slew of complaints.)
Elharar says she’s gotten over the yelling match, but maintains Hazan’s remarks are symptomatic of a state of affairs where lawmakers are purposely provocative to get headlines.
“There is discourse that is certainly violent, disrespectful,” she says. “The discussion between Knesset members themselves is harsh.”
“And there is a feeling, at least my own and I know several others [feel the same way], if you don’t say something shocking, the media won’t cover it. And then there is ‘a race to the button’ of who will say the most shocking thing, a kind of Big Brother,” she says, referring to the reality TV show. “On the other hand, I still very much want to hope that although the prime minister is facing problems of his political survival with his very narrow coalition, he still won’t let the super-harmful legislation pass, such as the NGO bill, which can burn international ties, such as the ‘foreign agent moles’ law, that I don’t have one good word to say about it, not even one.”
Alliances across party lines persist in the Knesset, she says, pointing to her personal ties with Likud MK David Bitan, Shas’s Yizhak Cohen, United Torah Judaism’s Uri Maklev and Kulanu MK Merav Ben-Ari.
“You can sit in the plenum for hours and shout, and lock horns, and in the end everyone leaves the room and drinks coffee together,” she says, and yet, “it happens less than previous Knessets, even the last Knesset. It’s becoming more political than it was.”
As for the opposition, Elharar maintains it is too fractured with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu and Joint (Arab) List to be effective, but she nonetheless rules out joining the current coalition.
“We were in the coalition under Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu,” she adds, referring to the last government, which fell with Netanyahu firing then-finance minister Yair Lapid and then-justice minister Tzipi Livni.
“It didn’t work so well,” she says in English, with a laugh.
‘Criticizing the IDF is the right thing to do’
While Elharar positions herself as slightly left of her centrist party, she sticks to party lines in criticizing Breaking the Silence, an organization that documents alleged abuses by IDF soldiers against Palestinians.
“In my eyes, criticizing IDF activity is the right thing to do. We’ve always said ‘we’re the most moral army in the world,’ and we want to stay that way. And I think it’s right that soldiers, who have faces, who have names, should step forward and testify on what was incorrect,” she says.
But the criticism must be directed at Israeli audiences, rather than to the UN and EU, she says.
“Like the Swedish foreign minister. I won’t go around with her hand-in-hand in the Old City and say ‘look, you see that house. There, every year, when there is a soccer game, they tie up the Palestinians in the rooms, and the soldiers watch soccer,” she says, referring to one allegation. “It could be that this happened, I’m not saying it didn’t. It probably happened. But I don’t think it happened in a serial manner.”
Elharar — who says it’s hard for her to judge the IDF’s “complex warfare activities,” having not served in the Israeli army — maintains there are likely “horrific” cases.
“But I think that firstly, it’s very easy to criticize from the comfort of the Knesset or a café in Tel Aviv. And secondly, if you are already criticizing, and this is correct, then do it from a place where you can make improvements. Therefore… even I think that Breaking the Silence is an organization that sort of lost the direction its founders had intended. And it’s too bad.”
‘Don’t give up on us’
While in the United States to get her graduate degree in law from American University, Elharar says she felt American Jewry was “distancing” itself from Israel, that “we aren’t them.”
“I want to tell them not to give up on us,” she says.
“At the end of the day, we’re one nation. Don’t give up on us. Not in the sense that I’m urging everyone to move to Israel. But I think there are so many things that bring us together, that unify us, that it would be… very painful,” if there was a deep divide between Israelis and Jews abroad, she says.
Yesh Atid is working to ensure that Israel remains the state for “all the Jews,” she adds. So, she concludes wryly, hold off on the break-up plans for now.