Coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) spent the last year trying to keep the most heterogeneous coalition in recent memory in line, and is ready to move on. It’s not an easy job trying to whip votes from Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on the same policies, when their political views seem to be polar opposites.
It’s even harder trying to get such a diverse coalition to pass hugely controversial legislation that could have a major impact on Israel’s future, especially three such bills in three days – electoral reform, haredi conscription and referendum on land concessions – but Levin managed. Of course, the fact that the opposition boycotted the votes made life easier.
“This coalition had a very difficult starting point with unprecedented circumstances,” Levin explained this week. “The leading party only has 20 seats, our coalition partners are led by people who think they should be prime minister [a reference to comments by Finance Minister Yair Lapid], there are major ideological divides, inexperienced people and many new MKs, new party leaders and new faction leaders.
“The challenge was to take a system like that and try to make far-reaching moves,” he stated.
How did you make such a heterogeneous coalition work together?
In the beginning, everyone tried to neutralize each other, taking a stance and torpedoing everyone else.
It took me a long time and a lot of conversations with the coalition members to reach understandings. When you have a lot of seats and the ability to sit in the government, there is a responsibility to use those assets to act, not just to oppose things. We tried to find common ground and compromise when possible. It was a process. At first it was hard, but eventually people understood.
What do you think of the complaint that coalition MKs were forced to vote against their conscience, so that the policies they support will become law?
The coalition is made up of parties with different agendas. Everyone wants to promote what’s important to him or her, and we needed to compromise.
Every side got something important to it, plus the content of the bills is compromise versions with which everyone can live.
We brought serious reforms, so it’s natural that there are disagreements, even within the factions…We needed to work as one unit with clear agreements and lines… We wanted to ensure that all three laws pass with the majority they need.
No one is forcing any party or MK to be in the coalition. Everyone can decide at any minute that he or she wants to leave, but as long as we’re in a coalition, we have to vote on what’s decided, or there’ll be anarchy…There are always two choices: Compromise and then be able to promote what you want, or leave the government. You can’t do both; you can’t be in government and then vote however you want.
The opposition certainly made it easier to get a majority, by boycotting the votes.
What the opposition did is shameful.
Legislation stands on three legs. The first is the need to have real debate while considering the minority, not crushing or ignoring them. In this case, we had a whole year of debates in committees. Many things the opposition demanded were added to the bills’ final drafts. They’re all different from how they were in the first reading, like we lowered the proposed electoral threshold from 4 percent to 3.25%.
The second leg is giving the minority the right to express itself, and we gave them more than what is usually accepted.
The bills were discussed for a year and we gave each bill 24 hours in the plenum, allowing broad expression.
The third leg, which the opposition forgot, is that there are votes in a democracy and decisions need to be made, laws need to be passed. The minority doesn’t have the right to sabotage the existence of votes.
It’s no coincidence these people are in the opposition. The public wants responsible leadership, people who lead and are not led by marginal extremists and, unfortunately, the opposition did not pass that test.
WHEN THE Knesset begins its Passover recess in a week, Levin will be more than ready to close the coalition chairman chapter of his political career, but not to get some rest and relaxation. Levin says the job didn’t give him enough work – or at least not the kind of work he’s interested in.
“I’m not quitting; I only agreed to take the job for a year,” Levin explained.
“As far as I’m concerned, the prime minister asked me to accept this position for a limited amount of time, and I managed to survive despite the complex coalition. Now, I’ll sit with him and discuss what’s next for me.”
Why don’t you want to stay coalition chairman? It’s a very powerful position.
This job took the place of a lot of other important things I wanted to accomplish, like changing the justice system. I put a lot of time into that issue in the last Knesset, but I didn’t have the option to do that this time.
Do you want to be a deputy minister like other second-term Likud MKs?
When I met the prime minister after the last election, he asked if I want to be a deputy minister. I pointed to a plant that was on the table and asked him if he thinks I’m similar to the plant. He knows there’s no chance I’ll take that job. I didn’t feel that I can take significant action as a deputy minister, and I have no doubt that I am privileged to be in the Knesset.
That’s why I took this job, aside from the fact that the prime minister said he needs me for reserve duty and I respect him. I want to be somewhere where I do things, not just have a title.
What do you want to do in the Knesset, now that you won’t be coalition chairman?
I have two big goals. The first is to change the way leadership of the legal system is appointed. Judges pick themselves, but we need a balance.
A minority group with post-Zionist views took over the judiciary and is trying to use it to force its views on the public, even though it doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset.
We need to change how the High Court president, the attorney- general and state attorney are chosen.
The court needs to be more Zionist and Jewish. If we’re a Jewish state with a democratic government, there should not be court decisions that are wearing down the Jewish element and moving us to an undemocratic system.
It’s clear that these decisions endanger our ability to have a Jewish majority with Jewish values. If anyone tried to pass the Law of Return today, the right of any Jew in the world to come to Israel and be a citizen, which anchors our commitment and connection to world Jewry, it would be rejected by the High Court. They would call it not equal and not proportionate.
That brings me to my second goal, which is to pass Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. I’m working on it with [Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman] Ayelet Shaked. We’re not saying anything new; we’re going back to the basic principles that built this state.
Didn’t Livni appoint Prof. Ruth Gavison to take care of that?
That is the highest price I paid for the job I have now. I had to bring compromise and prevent arguments, so I couldn’t promote something that caused discord… Once I can dedicate time to this bill, I think we can create a situation in which we have a broad understanding and allow it to pass.
What impact would such a law have on negotiations with the Palestinians, since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is demanding the other side recognize Israel as the Jewish state?
Palestinians refuse to recognize the right of Jews to have a state in this entire region. I think there is an attempt to blur things and say the Palestinians have a right to their own state, but Jews should live in a state of all citizens, plus allow Palestinians to immigrate into Israel.
A clear Israeli law will be significant in diplomacy. It’ll show our insistence that we are a Jewish state.
On the topic of negotiations, the Land of Israel Caucus, which you lead, had some very harsh things to say to US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro about American efforts to mediate.
I respect and value Shapiro; he’s an honest man with a warm connection to Israel. Still, it wasn’t an easy meeting.
Shapiro wanted to hear firsthand the feelings and positions of MKs in the Land of Israel Caucus, and I told him in advance that we won’t be politically correct. We wanted to speak openly, even if it wasn’t pleasant.
Unfortunately, parts [of the closed meeting] were recorded, which I think was inappropriate, but it was an important meeting.
Shapiro came out understanding that a significant part of the Knesset stands for our right to the land.
Peace won’t come from mass transfers of Jews from their homes or from moving us out of important Jewish centers since biblical times, like Hebron and Shiloh. We encouraged the prime minister to protect settlements and other things that are important to Israel.
LEVIN ISN’T only focused on changes inside Israel; he’s working on his Diaspora connection as well.
Between an upcoming trip to the Australian Friends of Likud and deep family roots in the South African Jewish community, the lawmaker emphasized the need for Israel to invest in strengthening its connection to world Jewry.
“Jewish communities and their leaders have an important role in changing the way Israel is treated around the world and creating a more balanced picture,” Levin explained. “Where there is a strong Zionist community, strongly connected to Israel, it influences relations between Israel and that country. It is no coincidence that Canada and Australia are two countries that are geographically far from Israel, but very close to our stances. ”
How do you think the government should preserve its ties to Diaspora communities?
We need to help leaders who are working to affiliate Jews with their community. When people feel like they’re part of a community, they strengthen themselves and their community and are able to better pass on the message to the younger generation.
We should send emissaries to communities and invest in initiatives like Masa and Taglit-Birthright.
When I am the guest of Australian Friends of Likud, I hope to convey to them that MKs and ministers and public leaders in Israel want to hear what is important to their community, and what their needs and expectations are from Israel. I hope to get and give answers that will strengthen our connection.
Bennett, who is also the minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, talked about changing the paradigm from pushing world Jewry to move to Israel, to working with Jews who want to stay in the Diaspora. Is that what you’re saying should be done?
I think we need to combine the two. There won’t be aliya without strengthening communities. We need to deal with the threat of the younger generation distancing itself from Zionism and Jewish identity by making sure they’re affiliated with communities, but we still want to encourage aliya and happily accept everyone who comes. We wouldn’t exist without aliya, but I don’t think that comes at the expense of Diaspora communities.
It is a result of their strength. As for communities in places like France and Ukraine, I think we need to make a special effort to help them come to Israel in their time of crisis, like we did with the former Soviet Union and Ethiopian Jewry. It’s the meaning of Zionism, and will improve their personal security and quality of life.