‘I’d like to have some humous with [US Secretary of State] John Kerry and tell him how I see things,” Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel said in his office Thursday.
The invitation came after weeks of outspoken criticism of Kerry by politicians in both Ariel’s Bayit Yehudi party and the Likud, leading the US State Department to request apologies.
But the minister clearly tried to choose his words more carefully in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, pausing to think after questions.
“One time, I said America knew about construction in [east Jerusalem] – I didn’t say they authorized it – and the American Embassy put out a message that Kerry didn’t speak to me. I never said he did!” Ariel recounted. “I don’t know why [the Americans] are suddenly so sensitive. I guess Kerry doesn’t like criticism. No one does. I don’t.”
“I’m not Kerry’s interpreter,” he shrugged, sitting under a photo of Jerusalem focused on the Temple Mount, which he has visited several times as minister. Another photo of his grandchildren perched on his desk, not far from large platters of cut fruit and vegetables on which he would sporadically snack.
The US State Department denied Kerry was threatening Israel with boycotts, saying it was just a warning. What do you think?
It looks and sounds like a threat, even if he didn’t mean it. I think there’s no place for that kind of talk between allies.
A country can’t abandon its security because of whether there will be a boycott or not. The alternative is for missiles to be shot at us out of Judea and Samaria. Will we have a good economy then? We have past experience with this: When we clearly didn’t let terror win, the economy grew. Experience shows that we need to fight terror and not give in, which I think is what any nation in the world would do.
Israel survived boycotts in the past. There was the big Arab boycott, over a long time.
There was an arms embargo by France for years – and that actually helped us. We developed the Merkava tank, the Lavi fighter jet and other great things. It made us manufacture blue-and-white.
I’m not saying I’m in favor of boycotts, of course, but they shouldn’t threaten us, certainly not through our pockets. That’s not what allies do.
Earlier this week, you said the extreme Left revived an anti-Semitic trope, that one “just has to hurt a Jew’s pocket and he will fold” – is that what Kerry is doing?
I don’t know Kerry, but the world of boycotts has an anti-Semitic aspect. It’s not the main cause [of boycotts], but if you look at recent reports, anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world.
We need to move to friendlier discourse. We had it with America for years in areas of diplomacy, economics and security. We need to strengthen that.
Things that look like threats cause reactions and close the option of discourse.
Do you think sharp criticisms of Kerry hurt Israel’s relations with the US?
I hope not. They criticize us and we criticize them. I think we have a mutual appreciation of each other and good relations over the years. Criticism doesn’t need to turn into a battle. I think the depth of our relations is greater than one event or another that becomes a momentary problem.
Did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ask ministers to tone down their rhetoric when it comes to Kerry?
Someone told me they saw an article about it, but I didn’t get any messages like that. When the Prime Minister’s Office has a message for me, believe me, they know how to send it.
Where do you think the talks are headed?
Everyone in the coalition agrees, including [Justice Minister Tzipi] Livni and [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid, that the major settlement blocs will remain intact, the Jordan Valley will remain part of Israel, there cannot be a right of return and Jerusalem will remain united. The other side wants the right of return, won’t recognize Israel as Jewish and doesn’t want any Jews on their land. If you ask me if we can reach an agreement with those terms, I say no.
Both sides are thankful to Kerry and [US President Barack] Obama for their efforts, but are asking for more time, and that’s what will happen. Talks will continue. I think it’ll just be déjà vu. I don’t see how there can be a breakthrough here. I don’t see where Kerry has room to maneuver.
What are Bayit Yehudi’s redlines?
Harming the Land of Israel, united Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, right of return, security.
I can’t really give details because there are endless possibilities.
If the framework document the US is preparing goes against your redlines, will you leave the government?
We don’t know what’ll be in the end, but if the document is something we can’t tolerate, we’ll leave.
I want to qualify that. If Kerry writes a letter that doesn’t need to be authorized and the prime minister can express his reservations, we won’t leave. If it goes to the government, cabinet or Knesset for authorization and we don’t like it, we will leave. The whole party agrees on that, and this is clear to the prime minister. I already told him.
ARIEL’S ORANGE BRACELET, which marks the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005, has faded to yellow, and it slid down his right arm as he gesticulated. The politician, known for wearing sandals to the Knesset and a shirt that is never entirely tucked in, still didn’t seem totally comfortable in the business attire expected of a minister, as his suit jacket was draped on the furniture in an adjacent room.
Ariel, leader of Tekuma, the further-to-the- Right party in the Bayit Yehudi list, lives in Kfar Adumim and was secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip and of the Amana settlement-building organization. He entered the Knesset as a member of the National Union faction in 2001, following Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi’s assassination, and since then, climbed the party’s ranks until it fell apart. He then hitched his Tekuma party to the Bayit Yehudi’s wagon, riding it to 12 seats and the Construction and Housing Ministry, where he’s approved the construction of thousands of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Ariel touts the line of reasoning that more housing in the country’s Center will bring down prices there and then in the whole country, which is one reason settlement construction is beneficial.
“Ariel, Alfei Menashe, Elkana, Givat Ze’ev, those are all in the center of the country. Ariel is only 10 minutes from Rosh Ha’ayin. Ma’aleh Adumim is necessary for Jerusalem,” he posited.
How can you justify the costs of building in places the government is, at least in theory, negotiating to evacuate?
Did anyone calculate what would happen if 100,000 Jews are taken out of, say, 28,000 homes?
Can the Americans tell us what will happen to the housing market, then?
If Jews were forbidden from building homes anywhere else, the whole world would be outraged. You know what they say: It took 2,000 years to get Jews out of the Diaspora and it will take another 2,000 years to get the Diaspora out of the Jews. Would any other nation freeze its own construction? We’ll keep moving forward.
Do you think Jews will be able to live in a future Palestinian state?
That’s not a serious suggestion. Even Netanyahu said it’s not an operative plan. Not one Jew in Israel – OK, maybe one – believes that Hamas will protect the residents of Ariel.
Years ago, when I was the head of the Yesha Council [the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip], the Japanese ambassador visited me. I said to him: Take 10 Arabs from Nablus, dressed like Arabs, and drop them off in Tel Aviv to go shopping or wherever, and pick them up at 8.
Now, do the same to 10 Jews; take them to Nablus. I asked, ‘Do you think you’ll be able to pick them up at 8?’ and he said no.
They [the Palestinians] don’t have a problem walking among us. They work in construction.
There are 35,000 legal workers and some say the real amount is double, and no one beats them up, but look at the lynching in Ramallah.
A WEEK before Ariel spoke to the Post, tension in the coalition reached a new peak after someone in the Prime Minister’s Office presented the option of Jews living in a future Palestinian state to foreign press. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett sharply criticized Netanyahu, and the prime minister demanded an apology, threatening to dismiss the Bayit Yehudi leader from the coalition.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office credited Ariel with negotiating the resolution, in which Bennett did not say he was sorry but did say he didn’t mean to hurt Netanyahu’s feelings. However, Bennett said it was his wife’s doing, which seemed to underscore tensions between him and Ariel.
Why do you think things devolved into a crisis?
We’re all human, and when we feel hurt, we react. The fact is that it ended after less than two days, so it wasn’t really that bad.
There are some burdensome signs left, but the coalition is working.
Does “burdensome signs” mean Netanyahu and Bennett aren’t able to work together?
We’re functioning normally as a government and in ministerial committees. I can say that not only about myself, but about other ministers, I think it’s true for everyone.
This week Bennett presented his plan for employment to the government, and the meeting went well. Everyone voted in favor of it. I didn’t see any problems.
Do you think the coalition is in danger?
No party wants to leave. I think something very dramatic has to happen for someone to leave.
Someone told me that the prime minister could remove Bayit Yehudi from the coalition [if there’s a peace agreement] and put in Labor instead, and then remove Yesh Atid, too, and put in the haredim, but it’s not realistic politically.
I don’t think [opposition leader Isaac Herzog] wants to join.
Plus, Likud MKs told me that they won’t vote in favor of a left-wing government. I won’t say who, but you can guess. [This is probably a reference to one or more of the Likud’s deputy ministers, such as Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Ze’ev Elkin or Ofir Akunis.]
What about friction between Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid on matters of religion and state?
It’s problematic, but I think we’re moving forward. I told the prime minister he really has to use his full weight on this. This can break up the coalition. If everyone pushes in his own direction, we can fall apart. I hope the prime minister will calm things down. It won’t be totally quiet, though; even families argue sometimes.
These issues mostly bring publicity to MKs.
They need to make a living, too. That’s just part of Israeli politics – there are bills, and there are declarative bills. Many [on religion and state] are the second kind. In the end, they won’t become law, but they made noise – and that’s something, too.”
What kind of compromise can the two parties reach on the issue of legal recognition for same-sex couples, like Yesh Atid MK Adi Kol’s bill granting gay parents a tax break?
There’s a difference between a law that’s public and official, and what the country declares, and a bureaucrat who can say ‘These people can get benefits in this case.’ We don’t want these things [recognition of gay couples] to become law, but we can make it easier for people through ordinances.
What about civil marriages?
There won’t be civil marriages. Two weeks ago, we had a learning day with Rabbi Yaakov Medan [of the Har Etzion Yeshiva], Rabbi Haim Druckman [head of Bnei Akiva yeshivas] and Rabbi Yaakov Ariel [president of the Zionist rabbinical organization Tzohar]. Bayit Yehudi then decided as a party that we need to continue discussing it and see what we can do. We don’t have a final position yet.
There have been cases that the rabbis with whom Tekuma consults opposed policies the Bayit Yehudi advocates. What do you do then?
It doesn’t happen often. We have a procedure, where we try to talk to the rabbis in advance of votes and discuss the issues with a legal adviser.
Bayit Yehudi and Tekuma were supposed to officially unite shortly after the election, which was over a year ago. Is the fact that it didn’t happen a sign of tension, perhaps because the Tekuma leadership is more conservative?
Plenty of MKs in Bayit Yehudi consult with rabbis and are no less [conservative] than I am on the issues.
We started talking about officially uniting, but it’s a long process that takes time and patience. We’ll run together in the next election, as far as I can see.
ARIEL’S PHONE buzzed with a text message from Netanyahu’s parliamentary aide, Perach Lerner.
“Here’s a scoop: Perach Lerner is back to work after maternity leave,” Ariel quipped, and read the message out loud: “A bill by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) to make the Ministerial Committee for Legislation transparent – protocols and votes – is coming to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday. Are you in favor or opposed? We firmly oppose.”
“I firmly support it,” Ariel slowly said aloud, as he typed back to Lerner. “I’m cooperating with Tzipi Livni against the attorney-general. I think there should be more transparency,” he declared.
Your voters won’t be happy that you’re cooperating with Livni.
Ariel laughed: "It won’t hurt me in the party primary – Tekuma doesn’t have primaries."