Ahead of Shavuot, the holiday most identified with conversion due to the story
of Ruth, opposition and Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich has a message of
hope for those whose conversions – and other important Jewish ceremonies – are
not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
Only minutes after voting in favor
of a bill that would allow civil marriages and divorces for those who prefer not
to or are not allowed to be wed by the rabbinate, which was voted down,
Yacimovich, 52, said Israeli citizens should be given all options.
in favor of opening the widest possible range of alternatives that fit people in
Israel and the wider world,” she explained, “whether that is Conservative or
Reform marriages, civil marriages, same-sex marriages.
are small in Israel, but larger in the rest of the world, need to be entirely
equal on every ritual in the life cycle, from birth to burial,” Yacimovich
Well known for her socioeconomic agenda, which catapulted her to
fame as a radio and television reporter, and contributed to her meteoric rise
from MK to Labor chairwoman to opposition leader in six years, speaking to The
Jerusalem Post last week, Yacimovich expounded on topics on which her opinion is
The entrance hall to her office – one of the biggest and
fanciest in the Knesset – is cluttered with unpacked boxes and computers yet to
find a home. Yacimovich is still settling in, and her new office is mostly
The Labor Party leader, dressed in her monochromatic uniform of
black button-down blouse and tailored pants, preferred to talk around a glass
coffee table, rather than sitting at her new desk. Admittedly uncomfortable
talking with the print media, though she is a former journalist, Yacimovich
often shifted in her seat, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees when she
wanted to emphasize a point.
She even asked Post photographer Marc Israel
Sellem to make sure the books behind her desk were not in pictures, because they
are not hers. (There was, however, a box of gummy candies at hand.) After all,
Yacimovich entered the place suddenly, unexpectedly, when Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz announced that they were
forming the largest peacetime coalition in Israel’s history earlier this month,
catapulting her to head of the largest opposition party.
What was your
first reaction when you heard about the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal?
When I heard it, I
didn’t believe it. It was so unrealistic! It was the total opposite of what
Mofaz had said that very morning – that I was negotiating with Netanyahu, which
he knew was a lie. He said he would be the leader of the summer protests and
called the prime minister a liar, which I would never do, on principle.
Does an unusually large coalition harm democracy?
A coalition of 94 is clearly
undemocratic and rare in the world. Democracy is based on debate between
different approaches that struggle with each other. There is such a huge
majority that it looks like an enormous mammoth that tramples
They are even taking over traditional strongholds of the
opposition [referring to MK Uri Ariel (National Union) leading the Knesset State
Control Committee, though he shares rightwing opinions with much of the
Labor is ready for a public fight. We discussed it with our
legal adviser, and we will go to an external court, as well as a committee of
coalition and opposition parties. It is a serious parliamentary battle, but in
the end, the real battle happens in the opposition. It was a mistake for Labor
to give up on seats in the State Control Committee [at the beginning of the 18th
Knesset]. It is unacceptable that there will be no debate on the
How can an opposition of only 26 MKs be effective and promote
Leading the opposition presents a rare opportunity to establish our
socioeconomic agenda. There is a new political public situation, in which it is
clearer now that Labor, under me, is the one and only alternative to Netanyahu.
There is no other party on the political map that even has the legitimacy to
present itself as such.
There will be a lot of economic drama; the 2013
budget will be cruel with severe cuts.
The basis of this argument and the
difference in ideology between capitalism and social democracy will allow us to
deepen our support even more.
The first issue this coalition has promised
to deal with is a replacement for the “Tal Law.” What is your take on ultra-
Labor’s agenda is humanist, liberal and free, with deep
respect for Jewish values. On the Tal Law, we have our own approach – we call it
the Ben-Gurion Outline. It maintains the custom of Torato Umanuto [Torah is his
occupation], but in proportions similar to what David Ben-Gurion decided.
[Ben-Gurion allowed 400 full-time yeshiva students to be exempt from military
service, which would bring us to about 4,000 in proportion to modern Israel.
There are currently 60,000.] I know it’s trendy to talk about this subject, but
drafting yeshiva students is not what will determine Israeli society’s
What matters more is bringing the haredi population into the
workforce. More and more of them want to make money for their
The role of leadership is not to deepen divides but to find
compromise. We don’t need to condition their increased contribution to the
workforce [on army service].
What about Israeli Arabs?
Labor agrees with
civilian service. I saw it in the Arab sector in Taiba. It exists and it has to
be expanded, but it must be done with dialogue and not by force.
Plesner committee [to replace the Tal Law] won’t have any significance without
including the haredim. No one believes the IDF police will go to the homes of
the haredim and draft them by force.
Can this government do it?
which historically never saw the haredim as an enemy, and I because I have
always had good relations with the haredim, can. This government? In the end
there will be a compromise. I think all the factions should be on the committee
without regard to coalition or opposition. That’s the healthiest and most right
thing to do.
This is not an issue of coalition or opposition.
has to be a decision of the entire country. Including the haredim in the IDF
does not have to be a political issue.
How do you think Israel should act
in relation to Iran?
Sanctions have not been exhausted – we are only at the
beginning of utilizing them.
Iran’s exports reach $100 billion a year,
and sanctions will severely harm its economy. All these things have not been
It’s obvious and we don’t have to repeat that all options are
on the table, but the military option in my opinion should be the last one. I’m
not convinced, to say the least, that this is the current government’s
First, we should exhaust all the economic international options
with full cooperation with the US and with the powers. Israel cannot turn the
Iranian nuclear issue into one that is only our responsibility; we need to be
part of a world coalition. I am using all of the influence I have so that my
understanding on Iran will be the dominant one.
There is too much chatter
[on Iran]. It has crossed every line! [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak was the one
who came out with declarations and criticized the chatter about Iran.
suggest he listen to his own advice.
What’s your stance on talks with the
I pursue peace in my outlook. I am part of the moderate,
pragmatic, Zionist camp, in favor of territorial compromise. The outline I and
Labor accept is the Clinton Plan, which means a return to ’67 lines, while
preserving settlement blocs and making territorial exchanges.
Most of the
political map has converged on that, including Kadima, that no longer really
exists, and the fringes of Likud.
There is a tendency among politicians
to speak a lot about diplomatic plans. There are many good diplomatic plans but
what really matters is leadership.
I have trouble taking [former prime
minister Ehud] Olmert’s plan seriously because it was one he presented when he
was on the way out. It has less significance. Olmert had three years as prime
minister, a comfortable coalition for diplomatic progress, with legitimacy in
the world and Labor on his side; yet there was no breakthrough. The opposite
happened – there were two wars.
Do you think the upcoming US presidential
election will influence the future of negotiations?
I have no interest in
dealing with the US election, but I can assume that if Obama wins he will have
more interest in being dominant in advancing a diplomatic plan. If Mitt Romney
wins, he will probably go more toward Netanyahu’s path. Then again, we could end
up being surprised.
What does the rise of Francois Hollande – someone
with an agenda similar to yours – as France’s prime minister mean for Israel?
are living in such a global world that political movements cross continents. The
victory of Hollande over [former French prime minister Nicolas] Sarkozy is very
It shows that an important change is taking place in the world.
The public is sick of swinish capitalism, wide gaps between rich and poor, and
having a caste of monarchs that control the wealth. That’s true in France and
also true in Israel – that’s why Labor and I are getting stronger.
are best known for your socioeconomic agenda. How do you think that will be
received internationally, where Israel is generally discussed in terms of war
In most of my meetings with world leaders they are interested to hear
that in Israel there are also socioeconomic issues. The topics that interest
Israel interest the entire world.
They also want to know the right system
for governments to use in dealing with the international socioeconomic
My agenda on socioeconomic [issues] is connected to the
diplomatic issue. Because for years the Left dealt only with diplomatic issues
and the Palestinians, it lost the support of the Israeli public. It thought the
government wasn’t doing enough for them. Since we are in an endless conflict,
the country’s agenda was all on diplomatic and security issues.
socioeconomic agenda like the rest of the world harmed Israeli
Without fixing poverty, there won’t be flowers of peace. A
diplomatic breakthrough will come from a healthy society and solidarity, not
from a society that is polarized between poverty and wealth. It’s unreasonable
to talk about borders without dealing with what’s inside those
Now, there is hope it will be different. This is the path that I
am leading. Being a candidate for prime minister and leader of the opposition
means I am widening my spectrum.
My social democratic agenda is a bridge
to connections around the world, and even in the Middle East.