He is on the one hand a two-term Kadima Knesset member, while on the other an
admitted fan of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of former
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and a skeptic of new party head Shaul
He wears a kippa, but he has been a friend to the gay community
and he has passed legislation that has angered haredim
He is a West Bank settler and a former
secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the
Gaza Strip, a central member of Israel’s team negotiating giving up
And he is a deep thinker in a workplace where many people say there
is a shortage of those.
Those contradictions were in full display on
March 27, the day Kadima members went to the polls. The party was split in two
About half the faction went out campaigning for Mofaz and about
half for Livni.
Schneller spent that day touring Israel’s southern border
with Egypt alongside Netanyahu, who invited him because of his years of
experience dealing with issues of borders and land. The tour raised eyebrows in
Kadima, but Schneller was unapologetic.
“Whenever there is a conflict
between helping the country and helping my own political future, the country
will always come first,” he says. “I was proud to be beside the prime minister
of Israel as decisions were made about the security of the country, and I
appreciated that I was the only elected official he invited. I am in an
opposition party, but I do not oppose the country and its
Schneller found time to also cast a ballot for Mofaz that day at
a polling station in Ma’aleh Adumim, not far from his home in the Binyamin
community Ma’aleh Michmas. But he was noticeably absent from Mofaz’s victory
party at Kadima’s headquarters in Petah Tikva.
While Schneller paints the
way he spent that day in purely patriotic terms, there was clearly an element of
political protest involved. Brought to the party by its founder, former prime
minister Ariel Sharon, Schneller has not been content in Kadima for quite some
“I had long conversations with Sharon when he persuaded me to come
to Kadima,” he recalls. “It was very hard to convince me. We agreed on what the
party’s outlook would be on diplomatic, economic and Jewish issues. Today’s
Kadima is not the Kadima of Sharon. It certainly was not under Livni. Whether it
will be under Mofaz, I still don’t know.” When Schneller is asked for a couple
of examples of how Livni led the party astray, he has trouble whittling down his
list to only two.
He says Sharon had promised him that any withdrawals
from Judea and Samaria would be conditioned on a referendum, which Schneller
says is key to preventing civil war.
But when he proposed legislation
enabling a future referendum, Livni enforced faction discipline against the bill
and had him punished severely for voting for it.
Schneller blasts Livni
and her predecessor as Kadima head, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, for
supporting the American lobby J Street, which calls itself pro-Israel and
pro-peace but he says is neither.
He laments that the affiliation with J
Street put Kadima “on the fringes of the Israeli Left,” indistinguishable from
Meretz on diplomatic issues.
“Livni crossed the line between criticizing
your government and your country,” Schneller says. “We became a leftist party
that incites against haredim and settlers, and instead of criticizing the
government’s actions as an opposition, we became partners in the criticism of
the State of Israel. For us to remain a Zionist party, we needed to replace
Schneller met with Mofaz after the primary in an effort to
determine what the new chairman’s views are and how he will lead the party. He
left the meeting somewhat reassured but still very skeptical.
basic views currently fit Kadima’s original outlook more than [Livni]’s, but I
don’t know where his desire to be prime minister will lead him,” Schneller says.
“Kadima voters are not Center-Right anymore. They are Center- Left and Left. If
he goes after his potential voters, he will get closer to her views. If he leads
in his own way, we will be closer to the Center-Right.”
believes the Center-Right of the political map is currently occupied by Likud,
especially since Netanyahu adopted the two-state solution in a June 2009 speech
at Bar-Ilan University.
“When one eye seeks a diplomatic agreement, the
other eye cries over the price, and the heart is entirely with the Land of
Israel, that is an expression of a fitting Center-Right Jewish Zionist Party,”
“We have a new leader. If he goes in Livni’s path, I will call
upon citizens of Israel not to vote for Kadima. If he changes her path and puts
patriotism for the country ahead of the good of the party, the public can decide
whom to vote for. I still do not know what party I would vote for.”
rare for a politician to admit that he does not know what party he will vote
for. But Schneller is not your ordinary politician.
His focus is
purely on ideology and he sees political parties as tools to legislate laws and
make an imprint on the country’s future. He says he is sure that by next
Independence Day he will know what Kadima will be and whether he can continue to
use it as his “tool.”
Sounding very different from almost any other
opposition MK, Schneller has nothing but praise for the current government, its
leader, his policies, and what he has done in pursuit of peace.
hard for me to be in the opposition when I think that on most issues, the
government is functioning properly and the prime minister of Israel is running
the country responsibly and professionally,” he says. “The current government
did everything imaginable to advance the diplomatic process. This is the only
government that froze [West Bank] construction for 10 months completely, even at
the price of my children and grandchildren not having schools they
Schneller puts the blame for the current diplomatic stalemate on
the changes in the Arab world, the Palestinian leadership and the American
administration. He reveals that he went to Washington to speak to high-ranking American officials two or
three weeks before Netanyahu’s last visit – not as an official emissary – but
the prime minister was well aware of his meetings.
Schneller, US President Barack Obama’s mistakes included returning to incorrect
concepts of Bill Clinton’s administration and assuming that both sides were
willing to pay the price necessary to reach a final-status agreement. He says
neither Israeli nor Palestinian society is willing to concede on the issues of
Jerusalem and refugees, and it was wrong of Obama to pursue a solution based on
pre-1967 borders with equal land swaps to total the area of 100 percent of the
“I get the impression that the American administration has
matured and understands these things now,” he says. “I believe that after the
election, if Obama wins, the experience he gained will help the diplomatic
Schneller does not see elections happening any time
soon in the Palestinian Authority, even though they were set to take place in
May. He says it is important for Israel and the US to maintain dialogue with
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s administration even though he
believes Abbas neither wants an agreement with Israel nor can reach
“Abbas’s strategy is like an arc,” Schneller says using his hands.
“He understands that to survive in power, he must simultaneously build a
Palestinian state bottom-up and maintain the conflict to find common ground in
his divided Palestinian society.
He needs both. Without the conflict,
there cannot be a diplomatic process and he loses his government. But if he
goes, Hamas and Iran can come in.”
Schneller puts most of the blame for
the diplomatic impasse on the changes in the Arab world, which he says have
created uncertainty in a region already affected by Iran’s nuclearization effort
and Turkey’s Islamization. He suggests that one of the reasons Mofaz is shifting
Kadima to deal with socioeconomic matters is that as head of the Knesset Foreign
Affairs and Defense Committee, he is privy to enough information to know that
such changes would hinder diplomatic progress.
“[Mofaz] understands –
like anyone who knows what they are talking about – that the blame does not lie
in Jerusalem,” he says.
Schneller helped Mofaz draft his diplomatic plan,
which calls for a two-stage withdrawal from 60% of the West Bank without
evacuating settlements and then from 100 percent via land swaps. But Mofaz
deviated from what Schneller advised him.
“The concept is correct, but
the plan’s problem is the Palestinians cannot accept defining temporary
borders,” he says.
“Rather than negotiations leading to a solution, I
think reality will lead to it. In reality, 98% of Palestinians currently live in
areas A and B, which make up 53% of the West Bank and practically already are a
Palestinian state. Diplomatic separation and territorial contiguity can be
achieved in the diplomatic process.”
Schneller has drafted a plan that
goes in depth into the solution for every inch of territory and minimizes the
number of Jews who would have to be evacuated, but he is purposely vague about
it because he prefers to quietly persuade prime ministers to implement it. He
has advised prime ministers from behind the scenes since Yitzhak Rabin drafted
him to head the Israeli delegation on the transportation issue in talks with the
He represented Israel at a November 1994 regional economic conference
in Casablanca that led to the inauguration of an Israeli Office of Interest in
Schneller also advised then-prime minister Ehud Barak at the
ill-fated 2000 Camp David Summit.
“We need to gradually disengage from
the Palestinian population,” he says.
“This will strengthen Israel
economically and socioeconomically and bolster its Jewish character. The fewer
points of conflict with the Arabs, the more we deal with ourselves, which is
Schneller’s conditions for disengaging are that it be done in
stages, that new homes for the settlers be built before they are evacuated, and
that a referendum be held. He says Sharon failed on all three counts and that
was why his disengagement from Gaza was a failure that must not be
He is unwilling to compromise on Jerusalem and Hebron, which he
considers the Jewish people’s heart. He made news when he affixed a mezuza at
the controversial Beit Hamachpela (House of the Patriarchs) in
When the foreign press asked him if he would leave his own home
for a deal with the Palestinians, he said no. But he says that if a referendum
passed saying that he would have to leave his home, he would in order to keep
the people of Israel united.
“It all comes out of love of Israel,” he
says. “The Palestinian conflict will eventually be decided. It is important
meanwhile to keep our nation together, which will enable us to keep the maximum
of Israel. We unfortunately cannot keep all of it. I am optimistic because
Israel is getting more and more united.”
Schneller speaks with reverence
about shlemut ha’am, which he translates as “the unified, collective spirit of
Israel.” That concept is what has guided him in drafting key legislation about
matters of religion and state.
He has passed bills encouraging organ
donation and adoption, unchaining agunot (women whose husbands refused them
divorces), and bridging the gap between the way sperm banks operate and Jewish
law. Schneller’s flagship bill would ease the religious bureaucracy in
“For me, everything is connected to ‘shlemut ha’am,’” he says.
“When I say the ‘Hallel’ prayer on Independence Day, I think of my father who
fled from Germany, my grandfather from Baghdad, my grandmother from Fez,
Morocco, and other Jews who came here from around the world. Politics are
irrelevant for me.”