The Times of Israel last interviewed Dov Lipman a little less than two years ago, days after his improbable election to serve as a Knesset member in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
Make that spectacularly improbable. The first American-born politician to win a Knesset seat in 30 years, Lipman had only moved to Israel eight years earlier (from Maryland), had only gotten involved in Israeli politics in 2011, and had only met Lapid for the first time six months before he became one of Yesh Atid’s 19 fresh-faced new MKs.
Now, Lipman and his fellow parliamentarians find themselves prematurely compelled to re-apply for their jobs, with the prime minister having sacked Lapid and demolished the coalition, sentencing an unhappy Israeli electorate to early elections on March 17.
If you believe the polls, Dov Lipman’s spectacular rise is about to be followed by a spectacular fall; Yesh Atid is only scoring around 10 seats in most surveys, and Lipman was No. 17 on the last Knesset slate. But Lipman and Yesh Atid have a healthily dismissive attitude to the pollsters who, after all, deeply underestimated the party’s electoral appeal last time around. Plunged unexpectedly back into campaigning mode, Lipman firmly talks up the prospects of Yesh Atid in particular, and the Israeli center, including this time’s newbie party leader, Moshe Kahlon, in general. He argues that most Israelis’ political orientation is middle-of-the-road, and that 2015 will be the year of the centrists.
Two years as one of the nation’s feted 120 have not given Lipman airs and graces. He remains engaging and passionate, and anything but disillusioned about his own party and its leader. He argues that even in a rudely curtailed 20 months, Yesh Atid delivered big time on three of its five key electoral promises: greater equality in national service, educational reform and electoral reform, and that it was well on the way to dramatic reforms, too, in the housing and wider economic areas, before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the rug out from under it. “Get us back there and we’ll continue,” he promised.
Where the disillusion is profound is in his assessment of Netanyahu. “He’s not acting in the best interests of Israel. He’s acting to preserve his seat,” Lipman said, sounding like the bitterest of long-term opposition critics rather than the dutiful coalition member he was until barely three weeks ago.
Lipman’s concern about where this country has been heading under Netanyahu’s leadership permeates this interview, which was conducted in English in the Times of Israel’s offices in Jerusalem. But I also sought to use the conversation to get an insight — from a real outsider turned insider — into how exactly the Knesset works: the mechanics of legislation, the legitimate and less legitimate pressures under which our politicians operate, the capacity of our parliament to properly govern this country.
Lipman was encouraging when asserting that he never felt perniciously pressured by outside lobbyists; he was grim and bleak, however, in detailing how, amid the coalition’s disintegration, democracy went out the Knesset Finance Committee window. “If anybody from the outside saw this meeting…” he said of a chaotic session in early December at which immense sums of money were allocated to settlements without MKs having a clue about the precise destination of the funds. He shook his head in something close to despair.
The Times of Israel: So, how are you?
Dov Lipman: Frustrated and excited. I’m frustrated because we were in the middle of doing so many good things. And it takes time till you get that momentum, and build those projects, and build those laws. And it just stopped. Stopped in the middle. Elections that are unnecessary on every level.
But then you take a step back, and you say, okay, once it’s happened already, now it’s an opportunity to build ourselves even stronger and come back with different leadership for the country, so that we can continue doing the things that we want to do.
The Israeli public is angry. They think these elections are unnecessary. People know that a lot of stuff that was supposed to get done hasn’t gotten done; two years were wasted.
I would join that anger, but I wouldn’t say that the two years were wasted. When I look back at our starting situation, I was very clear in all the pre-election events that we were promising five things. I outlined them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
The things we got done
The first one was the draft law for the haredim that the Supreme Court would allow, and we did it. We did it. We had certain goals for numbers of haredim to come and join the army [in the first year] and more did than was set out. Along with that, the most important part is haredi employment. People shifting from living off the state to actually producing towards the state. I was named to chair the Knesset Task Force to help haredim get to work, which was a project that we established. We get an average of 500 résumés a month, and thousands of haredim have gone to work. That’s a massive accomplishment. We opened up 42 haredi schools to teach general studies. From 0 to 42. That’s a massive accomplishment. We helped start the first haredi hesder yeshiva (combining yeshiva study and military service) in the history of Israel. I look back on those accomplishments and I say even though I’m frustrated, even though I’m angry, it wasn’t wasted. We came through on that.
We promised an overhaul in education. We’re smack in the middle. The process has started. We’ll see what happens. First and second graders had summer programming last summer. We were supposed to have third and fourth graders this summer. That’s not going to happen. The whole process of redoing the bagruyot (matriculation) was started. A process of establishing technology-based vocational high schools started…
What happens now with these half-done reforms?
Most are on hold. They’re not dead. Some things that already took hold in the system completely will continue during these next few months. The way we say it is, you know: Get us back there and we’ll continue.
We promised electoral reform. We said we’d raise the threshold to get into the Knesset and we said: smaller, more efficient government. We did that. The electoral threshold was raised to 3.25 %. If you don’t have 4 seats, you’re not going to be elected. That forces people to join together which is a good thing, so we can hopefully reach the point where we have a few major parties instead of all these small ones. And the next government, by law, cannot have more than 18 ministers. Whoever is the prime minister has to find a way to govern and put together a coalition within those boundaries. The last government before this one had up to 39 ministers and deputy ministers. Our money going to waste.
Those three promises we did. And I look back on the year and a half and I say that’s incredible.
As an English-speaking member of Knesset, I tried very hard to make progress for olim, from our background. There are a lot of programs for many other olim.
We used to get many complaints from people trying to get a driving license. They come here. They’ve been driving for 20-30 years. They fail the driving test. Then they have to take a theory test. That theory test must be done. You’re never going to take it away. We got rid of it. I worked together with the chairman of the aliya committee, also from our party. Yoel Razvozov. And we fought and we got rid of it.
Nurses that want to make aliya and they can’t take a test to get their license in Israel until they move here. That’s a major barrier to aliya. When they come here, months of study for a test and taking a test. We changed the system. It’ll take effect in a few months. They can take the test here as a tourist. We’re going to be arranging for tests abroad for large groups together.
We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in all these areas. But we got stopped. We got stopped on the other parts of the promises — cost of living, housing. That’s where the prime minister put on the brakes. For that I join the anger.
The zero VAT on housing was a bad idea. It was never going to work.
That was part of a massive change in the way housing was done in general. For the first time ever there was a housing cabinet. All the ministers and the ministries worked together to solve housing problems. The most important thing to do is raise how much is built. 100,000 units in a year and a half. Just boom. Every city: Modi’in, Rosh Ha’ayin, also the periphery, all over. Broad planning. They got together — transportation, education, interior, and the finance minister. They got together and they planned this. The next thing is targeted pricing. The 0% VAT was to help — not just to help the people who get the benefits and pay a few hundred thousand shekels less, but our estimate was that it would bring down the price of second-hand housing as well. I don’t mind that it’s controversial. You disagree with it, that’s fine. We have our experts who say it’s great. The expert from CNN said that anytime you do anything with VAT it helps.
We tried to do something. It’s the first time in years that someone came out and said, Whatever we’ve been doing has not been working and we’re going to try and do something about it.
[We were fighting] the old politics, the old-boy network of the Lands Authority. We tried to change the way things are done. A year and a half is not enough time.
As for cost of living: In January, water prices are going down 12-15%; electricity prices, 10%. That’s not just the Finance Ministry, but also Silvan Shalom from Likud. They worked together. They got that done. Food prices — not enough, but they’ve gone down 3.2% in a year and a half. That’s together with the Economy Ministry. So, we’re in the right direction with these things and then everything just comes to a halt.
Where it all went wrong
Couldn’t you have been smarter in avoiding the collapse of the coalition? You’ll tell me that it wasn’t your fault, but there were feelers about an alternative coalition, weren’t there? Maybe not at the very top of your party. Did you not make it easy for Netanyahu?
Well, I will say it’s completely his fault. If you look back on the year and a half, and go through the tapes, so to speak, you will not see Yair Lapid bashing the prime minister at all. You won’t see it. You’ll see, even during the war, complete support for Netanyahu. Even when, behind closed doors, [Lapid] was telling us that on many fronts things are not necessarily going the right way, he’s the prime minister and we support him. And this is while not just [Naftali] Bennett and [Avigdor] Liberman, during the war, were against him, but within the Likud. I sit in the Knesset daily and they’re talking about how the prime minster has lost his way. We were good coalition partners, and the disagreements were kept inside the room.
‘I met in the Knesset with the leaders of French Jewry. One of them said, if the Jewish nation-state law the prime minister brought passes, there’s going to be a direct line between that and Jews being attacked in Paris. A direct line’
The day that Yair Lapid and the prime minister had their meeting [at which Lapid was fired] we had a faction meeting. We sat together. Yair was completely prepared to work together with him. There was no reason to go to elections. He was figuring about where we can compromise and where not, and he walked in the door and the prime minster basically ended that.
The biggest blow-up, I think, was definitely over the Jewish nation-state law. That’s not why we’re going to elections. We’re not going to elections over that law, but that was the first time that we as a party made a decision, all 19 of us voted for this, that we will vote against that law even if it means that we’re thrown out of the coalition. That was the first time that that conversation ever came up. We’re in favor a Jewish nation-state law, just not the one the prime minister brought. Not one that takes the Arabs and puts them as second-class citizens.
Legislation that allows our critics to say you’re making people second-class citizens…
I did a conference call that day, the day we decided that, with the leadership of English Jewry, including many who are right-wing politically and they said, Dov, you’ve got to stop this law. I met in the Knesset with the leaders of French Jewry. The French in general are more right-wing, politically. One of them said, If the law the prime minister brought passes, there’s going to be a direct line between that and Jews being attacked in Paris. A direct line.
So we felt responsible, even though we didn’t want to leave the government. We said, that’s it. So we stood up to the prime minister. That’s the first time where we as a party said, this law will not pass. In a government meeting, Shai Piron, the education minister, turned to the prime minister and said, Bring your version of this. We will vote for your version of this. But he brought the extreme version.
‘We’re here to try to make the country better. Netanyahu was seeking just to preserve his seat’
This is my analysis, so I don’t know, but: He’s fighting with Bennett for the right-wing. He’s fighting with the Likud for the right-wing, and it’s an internal battle. I think at that point he was already in his mind going toward elections, and that’s what he brought. And we had to stand up and say no. And then at that point, yes, Yair did speak out against him. And then obviously it really blew up. There was no reason to go to elections.
You’re describing a prime minister who’s acting against the interests of the state of Israel.
When I was outside the system, I don’t think I understood this so much. I was also probably caught up in his definition: He’s so tough on defense.
He’s not acting in the best interests of Israel. He’s acting to preserve his seat.
There’s a person in the Likud who said to me, The day that Yesh Atid won 19 seats with a young, charismatic new person, the prime minister already began the calculation of when will be the best time to try to stop him politically. Not, Okay, they have ideas that are good for the country.
Did we make mistakes? Of course we made mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. But we’re here to try to make the country better. He was seeking just to preserve his seat. And the person in the Likud who told me this said, Of course that’s what he does. And that’s tragic.
There is no plan for the Palestinians
You’re someone who’s not unsympathetic to the settlement enterprise. How much do you think that is being allowed to dominate or subvert more critical issues for Israel?
Let me start by saying that if you had the prime minister sitting here right now and asked him what’s his plan; there are a few million Palestinians — we can argue whether it’s 2 million or 4 million — a few million Palestinians; what’s your plan? He would not have an answer.
And Yair Lapid said he saw that from the security cabinet for two years. He didn’t hear an answer. That, in and of itself, from my perspective, is destructive to Israel. We can talk about what’s a better plan, what’s a worse plan and why. And I can explain what our plan is. But that’s destructive to Israel — to allow a situation just to exist and allow the world, country after country, friend after friend, say we want to be your partners, we want to possibly be friends with you, but you’re just letting this grow. That’s a problem.
In terms of the settlements, we in Yesh Atid believe very strongly that Israel should be strengthening the major blocs, but not continuing to do anything in the isolated settlements, because there’s no possible way we can come to anyone and say with sincerity that we’re looking towards solving the conflict [if we’re building in the isolated settlements]. By the way, we in Yesh Atid don’t even call it peace. We call it separating from the Palestinians. I can’t say with sincerity and truth that I’m separating from the Palestinians when in the areas that we would have to evacuate, if we are to reach that settlement, we’re continuing to build.
‘We claim to be a democracy, and these people don’t have full democratic rights’
We believe that the reason to build the blocs is because in every discussion those blocs will be part of Israel and that also strengthens Israel, meaning we’re doing two things at once: We’re strengthening Israel by saying we’re not going to continue building in places that we’re going to have to evacuate some day, and we’re strengthening Israel by saying we will build in the places that are going to be part of Israel.
I meet regularly with members of parliament from around the world and very often they’ll start the conversation by saying: the settlements. And I do a little bit of educating. I do say, let’s explain what that means, because people throw around this word “settlement.” People want to build a preschool in Gush Etzion. That’s different from other situations, and you have to explain that. And that’s part of what we do. But there’s no doubt that the world — and I say the world, it’s almost the entire world — does not think that the prime minister or Israel at the moment is serious about solving this problem. And I was able to go to their parliaments and sit with them, and ask them to explain to me the problem; these are some of our friends. They said, You claim to be a democracy and yet there are these millions of people. What other democracy in the world has that situation? That’s a stain on Israel. That’s a real stain.
Yes, we can argue: terrorism and security. And we have to always take our security into account. And we will never agree to a deal if we don’t feel that our security is taken care of. But we have to recognize the fact that we claim to be a democracy, and these people don’t have full democratic rights. We have to do one or the other. We say separate from the Palestinians.
It’s very damaging to Israel. You can’t even call it the status quo. It’s not “managing the conflict.” The conflict is becoming worse by not trying to do something about it.
Lapid has come out in favor of using the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiation.
Right. Especially now. We look back at Operation Protective Edge in the summer and some of these soldiers killed and we fought and we did a lot of damage to Hamas, but we ask ourselves, where are we now? We ask the people around Gaza, where are we now? We’re in this mode of just managing, just managing, another two years. We don’t believe that’s what leadership is.
Why not make that case more energetically when you were in the government? Coalition discipline?
So, Yair did come out right afterwards [after the summer war], where he said, there should be an international conference, right now, using the moderate leadership of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He did, and then the prime minister didn’t take it that way. Is that something which at a certain point might have caused us to leave the government? It’s possible. There were definitely voices in Yesh Atid saying, What are we doing? He’s not going anywhere with this. Why aren’t we taking advantage of the situation? It could be that we would’ve reached a point where we would have left over that issue, and there certainly was pressure to do so. On the other hand, look what we’re doing in health. Look what we’re doing in education. Look what we’re doing in welfare. That’s always the balance that you have to play.
‘There’s definitely a sentiment out there of, We need to change prime minister’
You know, people always ask us, why didn’t you walk away on your own when things started blowing up? On the table was a budget with an increase of 4 billion shekel to totally redo the health system based on a professional committee that met for a year to try to figure out how to cut down the line so that people wouldn’t have to wait for surgery. A 3 billion shekel increase to education — to increase the summer time programming, longer school days, smaller classes. Two billion shekel to welfare — over and above the billion that we gave to Holocaust survivors so they can afford their medicines, get free medicine basically, and pay for their bills — to bring 200,000 senior citizens over the poverty line. A billion shekel to public security: 1,000 more policemen. Things that people need.
So we said to ourselves, we can’t walk away from that. We’ll let the budget pass and then we’ll analyze the situation. And by the way, we even thought the prime minister would do that: Pass the budget. And then if you feel that the government…
This was a betrayal of the Israeli public?
I think it’s irresponsible leadership. Lack of leadership.
A centrist ‘voice of reason’
And yet, if you look at the polls, and I know there’s a long way to go, but because the region is so unstable, because there is a perception in Israel that there are gathering threats, it doesn’t seem as though there’s going to be a swing away from Netanyahu and the rightist parties…
‘I’m used to a system where every eight years, or four years, you have somebody new as president of the United States. Yes, a new person. They learn the job’
There’s no doubt we could wake up the day after the election and see a government which sort of is continued, and even turns back the clock [for] the haredi parties on all the things that we did — all the draft issues, the general education, the work force, the conversion reform which is the law that I’m certainly proudest of. They want to turn back the clock and it’s very possible that someone will make a government and do that. But I’ve been travelling around just the last two weeks, campaigning already, and there’s definitely a sentiment out there of, We need to change prime minister, in a way that we haven’t had before.
But many Israelis look at the potential leaders and they say, in times of crisis, here’s a prime minister who’s been through this, and a defense minister who’s been through this, and we don’t see a credible alternative. I mean Yesh Atid had ex-Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri, but Yaakov Peri did not emerge as a prominent security authority. He really didn’t. For whatever reason. I agree with you that Netanyahu is quite widely blamed for this election, but I’m not sure there’s a sense that there’s a really good, credible, someone else in times of crisis.
The people of Israel will have to recognize that leaders change. People get into a position, and they surround themselves with the right people, and they can make the right decisions. People said to Yair Lapid, as an example, what background do you have? He sat in the security cabinet — and everyone who was there, not me, I wasn’t there — said he studied the issues, spoke to the generals, analyzed the situation, [showed] responsible leadership. He was there, he was a voice of reason when there were a lot of extremists on both sides. I think you can grow into that role. I’m used to a system where every eight years, or four years, you have somebody new as president of the United States, I grew up with that. The idea of, How can this person be [the leader]?, you don’t see that. Yes, new people. A new person. They learn it. They do it. And in Israel I think people need to recognize that it’s good for the country to empower new people.
Of course, hear what they have to say. Ask him every question you want. I travel to Yair’s campaign events; they’ve been off the charts in terms of the number of people. We’ve been turning people away at the door in the last few days. He answers every question. They asked questions about security. And he said, for sure, that these past two years in the Security Cabinet were critical. It put him in the position where he feels he can take over the reins.
We have three months to go. Whatever people are saying now, over time we know that things change. I think you’ll see a massive shift in terms of the polls, and our belief is that the majority of Israel is in the center. We’re in the center. We’re not left camp, not right camp. And the center in the end is going to put together the government. From our perspective, that budget, I have it in my office, it’s there. It’s ready to go, the moment we’re in.
Maybe your moment has gone, because you’re no longer the fresh faces? Now there’s another fresh team, Kulanu, with Moshe Kahlon at the head. Self-deprecating and smiles a lot and we don’t quite know where he stands politically. And he doesn’t have two years coming to an end in an argument with the prime minister.
There’s constant communication between [Yesh Atid and Kulanu], the leaders, they know each other very well, respect each other. There’s a good chance that there will be some kind of a joint effort, either before the elections or right after the elections, and that’s going to be analyzed throughout. There’s no reason now to jump to anything. We’ll see how things develop.
There’s a desire to use the center of Israel to change the situation. In terms of Yesh Atid itself, most people don’t realize how much we’ve accomplished in a year and eight months. They really don’t. We’re putting together a booklet now to get out to the voter and show them just what we’ve done, because most people don’t realize it, including the things I listed at the beginning, which were campaign promises we fulfilled.
So having a track record on the one hand helps. Obviously on the other hand, people say in a year and eight months you haven’t changed everything and it’s our responsibility to try and explain to them that in a year and eight months you can’t change everything.
‘You look back afterwards and say, okay, I got 30 percent done’
I think the prime minister was assuming that this was the best way: We went through the crisis stage where there was a 40 billion shekel deficit and we passed the 2014 budget which nobody liked because that’s what we had to do. And here, finally, there was a social-minded budget, the most social-minded in years on the table. [Netanyahu said], stop them before that goes into play. I think his hope was that we would disappear.
Polls now mean nothing to us. Five days before the elections last time there were some polls that had us at eight seats. We’re very confident. Will we be together with Kahlon? We’ll see. The goal is to be a very strong center. And Kahlon has identified himself that way. He has said he’s willing to evacuate land. We’ll figure out the best formula to make that [partnership] work.
The nitty-gritty of legislation
What’s it like to work in the Knesset? The pressures you come under? The capacity to govern Israel effectively? I’m thinking of lobby groups and other pressures. After two years, do you feel this is the place where you can get stuff done? Or are you more cynical?
You go in and you want to change the world. You come in with tremendous energy. You have your plan. We sat down with staff. And then you realize, okay, I can’t get 100 percent done because of various interests and powers and coalitions. I’ll get 80 percent done. Then you realize I can’t get 80 percent done, but maybe 60 percent done. And at a certain point you say, okay, it’s going to be 30 percent. You choose what that 30 percent is and go with it. And then you look back afterwards and say, okay, I got 30 percent done, and that’s the way you have to look at it.
The pressures are immense. Every single law that we wrote, that my office wrote, that I wrote, had various lobbyists that were against it for various reasons. The ones that shocked me the most were some of the religion and state issues. We thought we had a coalition with Jewish Home about those issues and it turned out that they were not moderates on these issues or progressive. They were extreme. There’s no other way to say it. And that was an angle we weren’t prepared for. Things that we thought for sure…
The last day of the Knesset, this issue of conversions and men in the mikveh when women are going to mikveh. It’s come up in America and then it came up in Israel. So, Freundel is what’s all over America. And in Israel, a religious woman came out and she told her story. She went into the mikveh with just a woman in the room, unclothed, and then she was supposed to come out of the water, put on a special garment, and then go in the mikveh with the men in the room. As she was walking out of the water to get that special garment, the men walked into that room. She said she went from the holiest, most spiritual moment of her life to the lowest moment of her life and she wants that to change. She doesn’t want women to have to deal with this. I started looking into this.
It was an error?
It was an error that they walked in and saw her unclothed. An error. I spoke to her. I started looking into it and hearing from women that even when the men aren’t officially looking at them unclothed in the water, it’s uncomfortable. They’ve gone through a process of modesty, modesty, modesty. They accept the laws, they accept the values, and then at the height of the conversion, all of a sudden something happens which doesn’t feel modest…
‘The pressures are immense. Every single law that we wrote, that my office wrote, that I wrote, had various lobbyists that were against it for various reasons’
So I looked into it and I saw that there are sources, sources that say that at times of need, for various reasons, the men don’t need to be in the room. They can be outside the room. So, I asked that the policy be changed, not through legislation. Legislation takes forever. Just change the policy, that you offer women the opportunity, the option, if they want, not to have any [men in the room]. Let them know that they have that option. Some of the women will take it. Some of them won’t. And I was rejected by Jewish Home.
I sent a formal letter to the Deputy Minister of Religion, Eli Ben-Dahan, asking him to please change the system. I stood up on the Knesset floor and made the request. And we get a letter back, saying we’re not going to change the policy.
Tell us about some of the outside forces?
The forces don’t come to me. They go to other ministers and lobby them to vote against a law. I’ll give you a classic example. Israel has a strict law banning the production of foie gras — fattened goose liver. Our idea was, the state of California bans any kind of business with it, meaning, even if it’s not produced here, we should be a country that, it’s such a horrible procedure, we shouldn’t have anything to do with it. I thought it was a simple law. It turns out there are strong lobby groups coming from countries outside of Israel. It included some people who do business with it here, who got to Yisrael Beytenu, and they put a veto on it. They stopped the law from going forward. No matter how much lobbying I did, they were not going to budge. We in Yesh Atid had to make a decision. Are we going to bring the house down over this law or not? The answer would be no. No. You have to use your political capital wisely. We weren’t able to move it forward because of a very narrow interest to stop it from happening.
I’ll give you another example where we were going to face a battle. I think we would have succeeded. I have a law which is in the pipeline now, mandating calories on restaurant menus. You see it all over America and Europe, just public health awareness, very straightforward. So of course you’re going to have the restaurant movement join together and fight against it. We have to adapt the law. We said the law should be for a company that has four branches or more and we would probably have to compromise and make it ten branches or more. Small businesses shouldn’t be hurt by it. That’s not the goal. That’s just an example where you do have forces that come in to play.
The biggest place, though: go back to our budget for a moment: People asked, how are you going to pay for that 10 billion shekel increase without raising taxes? So there were various places we were going to attack this. One, for example, was Keren Kayemet Le’Yisrael, KKL, where there’s huge amounts of money, and we were going to say, a billion shekel has to go towards the government budget, towards these social issues. The forces against that, largely from central committee members, political, not outside forces divorced from politics…
Which central committee?
In this case, it was the Likud Central Committee, and that by the way might also explain the prime minister not accepting the budget. It gets very complicated because the way we were going to pay for it was by attacking all of these things. Those interests are very strong, but they’re strong politically. That’s the key point I want to make. I never found the outside lobby groups [problematic]. They’re in the Knesset all the time. They wear these orange bands. They come around and they’re everywhere.
Accredited lobbyists. They’re everywhere. And sometimes not accredited lobbyists. You walk the hallway on a daily basis. You get bothered.
What did you find as a rabbi, an orthodox rabbi on the settlement issue, in terms of lobbying? Were you targeted? Why is your head not in the right place?
I got a lot of private communications. Huge Amounts. Once in a while there were organized efforts, but it was always e-mails, Facebook postings and the like. I never had an organized lobby group sit with me. I had people say, come and visit places. And I did. I visited Hebron with them. I visited various places. I’m willing to hear all sides of all issues and learn.
That scandalous Finance Committee meeting
What about the agenda of the Netanyahu-led government? I was struck by what Defense Minister Ya’alon said two weeks ago — that the Obama administration will go, and settlement building will boom. The sense that the whole things is a masquerade and if there’s one strategic imperative driving Netanyahu and senior Likud ministers, it’s to build in the territories.
We experienced something the day after Yair was fired as finance minister. I’m a member of the finance committee and the way it works is that every Thursday we receive a huge amount of documents for all the money transfers that are going to happen in the next week, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, in our meetings. We have time to review them. We can ask questions. The [appropriate officials] are required to answer the questions. It’s a very good policy that the finance minister worked out with the chairman of the committee, Nissan Slomiansky from Jewish Home. It worked for a year and eight months.
We woke up the morning of the next committee meeting and there were huge amounts of documents, including huge amounts of money, going to the settlements. I’m willing to analyze everything and see what it’s for. Is it for security needs? What is it for? There’s no way you can get to that vote. I woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning and the vote was at 9 o’clock in the morning. There’s no way you can be prepared. They changed the whole approach — what I call of transparency. You know, clean governing — with huge amounts of money going to the settlements.
That was the first time that I felt — wow, you know, if it wasn’t for the center bloc, so to speak, in the government, monitoring it, I don’t know what would happen with all this money.
I’m not against money going towards needs. People have needs. There are schools and there is security. But we have no ability in three hours to analyze all that. And that was the first time that I saw with my own eyes that there’s definitely an agenda to try to get as much money as possible [to the settlements], but also without transparency. You don’t know where the money’s going to, you don’t know what it’s going for, and that’s troubling.
You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in those last-minute allocations?
And what happened?
It went through?
We couldn’t stop it. There was no way to stop it. I kept saying, I didn’t even vote. I kept on asking, I don’t know what [this is for]. And they were reading it. The way it was done, if anybody from the outside saw this meeting, that was a moment where I said, the people of Israel need to have a better understanding of what goes on over here. Because they were voting on things without even knowing. I was trying to keep up with the numbers.
‘It’s pretty clear that Netanyahu’s in the more extreme-leaning and extreme-moving right’
Well, what kind of things?
It just said, “for the settlement division,” without really explaining, for what. I kept saying “for what? I don’t have any information.” They were just voting.
Who introduced those items?
It comes as an official request from the finance minister who at that point was Netanyahu. From my understanding, these were things that we held up. They were never brought to the committee. The finance minister never released it to go to the committee because of the process of figuring out what’s what and what it’s going for and the like.
You asked about things that can change, or frustrations in the Knesset? Those are things where there needs to be greater transparency, stricter rules about what chairmen of committees can do.
It raises the wider question of where Netanyahu is actually strategically oriented.
I’d say it’s pretty clear that he’s in the more extreme-leaning and extreme-moving right. He’s managing it by saying certain things in the right way, here and there, We’re trying to…, but not actually taking us somewhere. And I believe that it’s dangerous for the security of Israel. Dangerous for the security of Israel. That’s not what we want.
We want to, again, not in any way give up on our security, but have a vision of where we’re heading. That’s why when people do attack me, especially in the religious community, I say to them, what’s your plan? What’s your plan? What’s your plan to deal with the situation? We have a situation. They’re here. We’re in the same land. And if your answer is, Continue this way, we have control over all the land and they’re second-class citizens, I say, That’s not a Jewish state. It’s not a Jewish state.
The irony of what you’re saying is that there’s some perception of Netanyahu as the relative moderate on the right, who’s going to be outflanked by the overt extremist, Naftali Bennett, who says that he would annex 60% of the West Bank.
Right. I don’t know what Netanyahu would do next, meaning what steps. Something has to be done with what’s happening in the world. At a certain point, one way or the other. You want to become extreme right? Then, do something. To do nothing is almost worse. I don’t want something extreme right to happen. But to do nothing for the country is worse.
I met a few weeks ago with the head of a factory in Kiryat Malachi. He’s a guy that’s religious and he certainly believes that all of Eretz Yisrael is [ours by] biblical promise. He said, just dollars and cents-wise, we’re in trouble if we come to a point where we say we’re keeping it the way it is, which is the direction we’re going in. I believe the majority of Israelis get that. The majority of Israelis believe in two states for two people. They don’t believe it’s going to happen, but if they’re presented with something which worked, they would support it.
That’s where we’re trying to lead on that front. And hopefully the prime minister and the right-wing extreme side will not continue to grow, and will continue to be a smaller percentage of Israel.
How does it work with the nineteen of you and the list this time?
As a group, we’re not focusing on it right now. We’re all out there [campaigning]. It’s possible there’ll be changes in the number.
Lapid chooses the list?
Yair chooses it. Even though on the one hand it sounds undemocratic, or it is undemocratic in a sense, when I see what happens with the primaries [in some other parties]. (Laughs) Not too great either. We trust his leadership…
All 19 want to go back again?
As far as I know. Listen, it can be frustrating. If you have a good law and you want to pass it through, the system is such that you have to get every single minister on board, because if any minister wants to stop any bill, he can. It’s hard. It’s not just, I have an idea…
Any minister that wants to stop any bill, they can?
If they want to, yeah.
What happens is this. You write out a law. It goes first to the Knesset attorney’s office. They check to make sure that there’s nothing there that sticks out as something which is waiting for a court case to happen. They okay it and it sits on the Knesset table for 45 days. After 45 days it goes to the ministerial committee for legislation; each party has a few ministers there. If it passes, just by a simple majority, then it’s supposed to come to the Knesset for its initial vote. But if any minister wants to appeal it, he can appeal it. If he appeals it to the government, it’s done.
How come the Jewish State law, the [hardline] Dov Elkin version, for example, got through the Knesset attorney’s office? That’s more than a court case waiting to happen.
That I can’t answer. It was appealed by Livni and Yaakov Peri, but the prime minister has the ability to take any appeal and bring it to the government for a vote. So there’s a way around the appeal if the prime minister wants to. But how it got through the attorney’s department, I don’t know.
And this process of the hundreds and millions of dollars at the last minute for settlements, that you had no idea what you were approving, or you were not approving but was approved nonetheless, that can’t be reversed?
You and your colleagues allowed money to be transferred, and you have no idea where it is going?
The money was approved by the Finance Committee, by a majority, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s democracy. Nothing you can do about it.
Well, it’s an abuse of democracy?
Correct. What bothers me is also, if you had asked the people around the table if they knew where it was going, they wouldn’t. As a finance committee member — I was promoted Pessah-time to be on the finance committee — I take it very seriously. I pored over those documents. It’s not always easy. Hebrew is not my mother language. We pore over the documents. I want to know when I’m raising my hand for something that I know what I’m raising my hand for and I can explain it to anybody. There are times I might not always be thrilled with it, and it’s [a case of] coalition discipline, but I at least can say, yes, I know where the money is going to.
In this case, there was no possible way and it’s hard to experience that. But the chairman of the committee put it up for votes and they voted for it. They said, Number 697, 791…
And now you want to go back again and do it better?
People ask me, after experiencing a year and a half, are you more optimistic, pessimistic, frustrated? I say this. I understand the game much better now. We come back day one with a list of laws. I know how to get them through. We have to take the leadership out of the hands of the people who aren’t doing it better and make things better for the people of Israel. It sounds so clichéd, but it absolutely can be done. It can be done better, more fairly, more transparently. That’s what has to happen. And for that to happen, we need a strong center. That’s the way I see it. That’s the place where I think newness is good.
I was awarded most diligent member of Knesset. All of a sudden I find out that they’re saying I was in session more time than anybody else. I participated in more votes than anybody else. I said to myself, I just showed up to work. And Mickey Levy from our party was number 3. We’re new, we’re fresh, we’re here to work. That’s a good thing. Kahlon’s new party. New people coming in. We’re happy with that. That’s good for the system. There’s been a certain way the Knesset’s always run. We bring something fresh to it. And that’s why I’m optimistic.
People get that. People who know, who look over the list of things we’ve done in the year and a half, on so many different issues, say there’s never been such an active Knesset, in a positive way. We were stopped. We view it as a few months’ pause. It’s frustrating for me. I woke up every morning ready to go to work and change things. I miss that.
Now it’s campaigning. Campaigning is not that. It’s selling what you’ve done and what you’re going to do. It’s frustrating that we’re back in that mode. I just focus somewhat on what hopefully will come at the end of it, which is more power for what I call moderate, responsible, fresh leadership.
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