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Yisrael Beytenu members Alex Kushnir (left), Eli Avidar (center) and party leader Avigdor Liberman at an Israel Independence Day picnic, May 10, 2019 (Facebook)
Facebook, shows Eli Avidar (center) shaking hands with party leader Avigdor Liberman at an Israel Independence Day picnic, May 10, 2019. At left is fellow party MK Alex Kushnir
Interview'A million Western Jews will soon seek a new place to live'

New Yisrael Beytenu MK is an ex-spy handler, diplomat…and Roman empire expert

Eli Avidar recently penned a novel about leadership set in the reigns of three emperors, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Septimius Severus. Does he see modern parallels?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Main image by Facebook, shows Eli Avidar (center) shaking hands with party leader Avigdor Liberman at an Israel Independence Day picnic, May 10, 2019. At left is fellow party MK Alex Kushnir

On February 19, Yisrael Beytenu, a right-wing political party that draws support from Israel’s Russian-speaking community, announced its roster of candidates for the April 9 elections. Political veterans Sofa Landver and Robert Ilatov had stepped aside, while two fresh faces ascended to the top of the party’s list: Evgeny Sova, a popular and charismatic Russian-language television presenter, and Eli Avidar, an Egyptian-born former diplomat and former managing director of the Israel Diamond Exchange.

Avidar, 54, a father of three who was sworn in as a first-time Knesset member on April 30, has done enough things in his life for three people. During the 1980s, he served as a case officer in the IDF’s 504 intelligence unit, handling agents in foreign countries. In 1992, he became a diplomat, serving as vice consul in Philadelphia, head of Israel’s delegation to Qatar, and consul-general to Hong Kong and Macau.

His business activities include stints as managing director of the Israel Diamond Institute, managing director of the Israel Diamond Exchange, and president of the Israel-Africa Chamber of Commerce. In 2018, Avidar became president of a short-lived Israeli cryptocurrency company called Dindex Ltd., also known as Carats.io, which had its relationship with the Diamond Exchange terminated in June 2018.

He has written two books, “The Abyss,” (2011), a call for greater Israeli humility in dealings with the Arab world, and “Ictus” (2015), a historical novel set during the Roman Empire, and has also directed several politically conservative nonprofits.

During an interview at his home in the village of Shoresh in the Judean hills, The Times of Israel asked Avidar if there was any logic behind his life’s trajectory.

“No, there is no logic. In my experience, whenever I was planning to do something it never came about; I always went in a different direction. And that is the way everyone experiences their journey.”

For instance, Avidar explained, after publishing his first book, “The Abyss,” about how Israel totally misunderstands the Arab world, he decided to write a novel in Hebrew about Roman history.

Eli Avidar (Courtesy)

He spent three years reading everything he could on the topic and published that book, “Ictus,” in 2015. Avidar was working on his third book, a novel set in ancient Egypt, when elections were announced ahead of schedule in December 2018.

“I’m still working on the book,” he said, pointing to a white board filled with chapter titles and notes, “but unfortunately the elections were called early. If they had been called for November, I would have been able to finish.”

Three types of leaders

In an elegant sitting room lined with books on history and political theory in three languages, Avidar spoke thoughtfully about Roman history and its lessons for today.

Bust of Commodus (Public Domain / Marie-Lan Nguyen, via Wikipedia)

“My novel was about leadership, a concept that has been with us since the beginning of human society. What kind of leader do we prefer?”

The novel is set during the reigns of three emperors, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Septimius Severus. Marcus Aurelius was an extremely charismatic warrior-philosopher, who was so admired and almost worshiped by the people of Rome that they failed to pay attention to their personal circumstances, Avidar said.

“There was a saying that Romans were even ashamed to deal with their own miseries and problems, because they were his followers.”

Commodus, on the other hand, gave the people everything, said Avidar, taxing the rich and subsidizing basic products for the poor, but could not win the people’s love.

Finally, Septimus Severus, the third emperor described in his novel, was a cunning manipulator.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at the 16th annual Jerusalem Conference of the Besheva group, on February 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He came from the administration and understood exactly how the system worked. He was able to control and to rule the Roman empire through a lot of manipulations and through executions of his rivals.”

Avidar, a former intelligence operative, was particularly impressed by the emperor’s intelligence capabilities.

“He had an amazing knowledge of and intelligence about his rivals. There was a professionalism that I couldn’t find in other parts of history.”

Asked to draw a parallel between Roman times and today, Avidar avoided comparing Marcus Aurelius or Septimus Severus to contemporary politicians, but was willing to point to a contemporary parallel to Commodus.

“I believe one parallel is that of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who did everything to please a lot of people. He created unbelievable programs that made no economic sense but he was not supported in the last elections.”

From Likud to Yisrael Beytenu

Avidar told The Times of Israel that he used to be a Likud activist, but switched his allegiance to Yisrael Beytenu in 2008 for ideological reasons.

“Most of us in Yisrael Beytenu are former Likud members. Liberman used to be a Likud member,” he noted.

Avidar, who immigrated to Israel from Egypt at the age of three, grew up participating in Beitar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement associated with the Likud party, and spent his army service with a group of other Beitar members in the Nahal Brigade. While at university — he has a BA in Middle East and General Studies from the Hebrew University, and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Tel Aviv University — he headed the Beitar movement’s education department.

Without aliyah here is no future for the state of Israel

“Back in the 1970s, at the end of a Likud public meeting, they used to sing the Beitar anthem. I suspect that very few people in Likud today even know the Beitar anthem.”

In Yisrael Beytenu, by contrast, said Avidar, “there is not a single public meeting where we don’t discuss or mention an article or book by [Revisionist Zionist leader and Likud inspirational figure] Ze’ev Jabotinsky.”

Asked about the actual ideological differences between Yisrael Beytenu and Likud, Avidar said that the former is more focused on immigrant absorption, stronger on security, and in favor of economic liberalization in ways that other parties aren’t. “In my opinion Yisrael Beytenu is the party that is focusing on some of the most important issues,” he said.

“Issue number one is absorption. Absorption and aliyah are the essence of our state. Without aliyah here is no future for the State of Israel.”

Avidar compared immigration to Israel to a blood infusion the country gets when its blood pressure goes down. He credits a good deal of Israel’s much-touted high-tech success to the Russian immigrant wave of the 1990s.

Russian immigrants arriving in Israel in 1990. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“Israeli high-tech did not start because of the army, as many people believe. It’s because 1.2 million people came here from the former Soviet Union. Many of them knew math, physics and statistics. They were eager to work.”

Going back even further, Avidar said that Israel would not have survived very long as a state without the influx of immigrants from Arab countries in the 1950s, among other reasons because they knew Arabic and could gather much-needed intelligence. “Jews from Poland and Ukraine could not provide adequate intelligence.”

Immigration from the West

Asked whether Jewish immigration to Israel might exhaust itself at some point, Avidar replied that on the contrary, it seems likely that there will be new waves of immigration in response to rising anti-Semitism around the world.

It makes no sense that we withdrew from Gaza to the last meter and people don’t sleep at night. Fifteen-year-olds wet their beds and 14-year olds have psychological problems. It makes no sense that we have these problems and are paying protection money to Hamas. It makes no sense that we are hosting the Eurovision song contest and everyone is afraid of what will happen if they shoot rockets at Tel Aviv

“In the coming years there are about one million Jews who will be looking for a new place to move to. Jews who live in places like Kentucky, Louisiana and Pennsylvania don’t feel comfortable anymore. They go to Shabbat prayers and there are neo-Nazis outside demonstrating or shootings as in Pittsburgh and San Diego. In the United Kingdom as well, Jews don’t feel safe anymore. We as the State of Israel will have to compete with countries like Australia and Canada for those migrants, and we have to make a major effort so that our brethren do not go there.”

Avidar said that the second difference between Yisrael Beytenu and other parties is that “we believe security is not a game.”

“It makes no sense that we withdrew from Gaza to the last meter and people don’t sleep at night. Fifteen-year-olds wet their beds and 14-year olds have psychological problems. It makes no sense that we have these problems and are paying protection money to Hamas. It makes no sense that we are hosting the Eurovision Song Contest and everyone is afraid of what will happen if they shoot rockets at Tel Aviv. The strongest country in the Middle East cannot live under constant threat.”

Finally, said Avidar, Yisrael Beytenu believes not just in redividing the economic pie but in making it bigger, as China does.

When challenged with the proposition that all political parties favor economic growth, Avidar replied, “But they don’t do it. In our system it is extremely difficult because of bureaucracy, because of regulation and because entrepreneurs are being [figuratively] killed. All the exits that you can see in the last couple of years, they’re not because of the State of Israel, they’re not because of the institutions and the bureaucracy — they are in spite of them. No one helped these entrepreneurs. It’s possible to help increase exports and we don’t do this, to lower taxes in the right places so the economy grows, so that more people work.”

Asked what legislation is on his wish list, if he could pass whatever he wanted, Avidar said he would like to significantly increase the size of Israeli pensions.

“We are part of the OECD and the OECD mandates that elders enjoy a minimum pension that is at least 70 percent of the minimum wage. We don’t have that here. Our elders shouldn’t have to make a choice between eating and medicine.”

Liberals and Israel

Avidar was eager to speak about a recent news report that had peeved him: Speaking at a CNN Town Hall meeting on April 22, Vermont senator and US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said that Israel is “now run by a right-wing — dare I say — racist government.”

Avidar said the remark made him feel sorry for Sanders.

“I felt so sorry for him because when he said that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is the head of a right-wing government, and then he had to take the next step, so he said, ‘I dare even say a racist government.’ And that’s when he got his applause.”

Added Avidar, “I felt sorry for him, for someone at his age, just to get people who are not in favor of the State of Israel to clap, he made his tone more and more extreme, outrageously extreme. There is a Native American saying: You have a mission in life to do whatever you can to please your ancestors, so that they can welcome you and guide you in the kingdom of heaven. I believe that Sanders forgot that he has an ancestor.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, takes part in a Fox News town hall style event, Monday April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pa. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Asked about the internal tension experienced by liberal American Jews who care about Israel but feel alienated by Netanyahu, Avidar replied, “A lot of members of the Jewish community in America who are Democrats feel uncomfortable with the tight relationship between Netanyahu and Donald Trump.”

Avidar said that Jewish Democrats should realize that for Israelis, Barack Obama’s eight years in office were nothing short of a “nightmare.”

“Obama was anti-Israel from day one. I even remember the first official visit of Bibi Netanyahu to Washington. The second that Netanyahu was on the plane back to Israel, the White House published a peace plan for the Middle East which Obama had not informed Netanyahu of. And just to make it more nasty, it was published that the White House had consulted the king of Jordan, the president of Egypt and the king of Saudi Arabia.”

“Those were eight years of nightmare,” he added, “not only for the State of Israel but for a lot of friends of America in the Middle East. Look at what the Obama administration did in Egypt. They supported the Muslim Brotherhood. They helped bring [president Hosni] Mubarak down.”

Israel’s changing alliances

In a September 2014 Hebrew-language article in TheMarker, Haaretz’s business daily, Avidar wrote that then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, to whom he was an adviser, had realized that Israel would not receive support in its fight against terrorism from Europe and other Western countries, and had quietly worked to cultivate ties with Asian and African countries, an effort that had paid off in the relative freedom of action Israel had enjoyed during the 2014 Gaza operation known as Protective Edge.

The Times of Israel asked Avidar if he thinks international perceptions of Israel have changed in recent years.

“Reality has changed,” he replied. “We used to speak about Europe as one group of countries that think the same, but Europe now is divided between east and west, and even within Western Europe there are countries that have changed.”

I don’t see it as a problem that the three world powers, Russia, the United States and India, seem to be our very good friends. We are friends with Russia, but that doesn’t mean that we have to abuse human rights in Israel

For instance, countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have softened their criticism of Israel, “mainly because they suffer from problematic immigration into their countries. There is a growing minority of immigrants from the Middle East and Muslim countries who not only come to stay but who do not want to blend within the local communities and that creates a lot of tension.”

Ten years ago, said Avidar, anti-European trends and hate crimes among Muslims were often blamed on Israel and the conflict in the Middle East. “Nowadays, reality shows that the conflict in the Middle East is much less significant.”

Asked whether Israel is growing closer to authoritarian regimes as opposed to democratic ones, Avidar said, “If you check who the allies are of the world’s ultra-liberal countries, you will find that Iran has excellent relations with ultra-liberal countries.”

Eli Avidar being interviewed in his study, March 2019 (Facebook)

Avidar agreed that there should be a red line in terms of which countries Israel befriends, “but definitely if someone is more right-wing or more conservative I don’t see it as a problem.”

“I don’t see it as a problem that the three world powers, Russia, the United States and India, seem to be our very good friends. We are friends with Russia, but that doesn’t mean that we have to abuse human rights in Israel. There is no connection.”

Fighting corruption

The Times of Israel asked Avidar about his work for Israeli diamond tycoon Dan Gertler, who in 2017 and 2018 was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for being a “corrupt businessman.”

According to a 2012 press release, Avidar had been appointed CEO of Azura Consulting, a company that helped manage Gertler’s mining assets in the Congo, as well as deputy chairman of the Gertler Family Foundation.

But Avidar said he only worked for Gertler for several months and did not wish to comment further on this brief period in his career.

The Times of Israel also asked Avidar how he will fight corruption within his political party, Yisrael Beytenu, several senior members of which have been prosecuted on corruption-related charges, including former MKs Faina Kirschenbaum and Stas Misezhnikov.

“I am glad I am coming to politics at a late age,” he said. “I’m not going into it to make money, I have already made money. A year ago I decided to stop working. and to write books, not because the books will earn me money, but because I can [afford to do so].”

Avidar said that his record is clean and will continue to be that way as he enters the Knesset.

“Corruption must be stopped. Everywhere I worked, I knew how to work in a clean way. As a Knesset member, I will do what I always do: I will be clean.”

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