Kadima Faction Chairwoman Dalia Itzik has seen the opening of a Knesset session
or two – actually more like three dozen – in her nearly 20 years in the
legislature. But this coming session, set to open officially next Monday, will
be different, she says.
While previous years have focused on a wide and
diverse range of issues from disengagement to child subsidies, the upcoming
Summer Session will open in the shadow of regional events that, though Israel
had no hand in their creation, have everything to do with the future of the
No. 3 on the Kadima list behind Chairwoman Tzipi Livni and
would-be chairman Shaul Mofaz, Itzik is a party strongwoman in a party of
strongwomen. (Also in the Kadima Top 10 are Marina Solodkin and Ruhama
Avraham-Balila.) Her current position places her at the helm of the opposition’s
parliamentary initiatives, but also guided her in the early days of the
Netanyahu administration to try to push for a national unity
Unlike most of her legislative initiatives, including
extending the official definition of maternity leave from 14 weeks to six months
and advancing legislation to increase women’s representation on committees of
inquiry, Itzik suffered a crushing failure in her attempt to bring Kadima and
Likud together. It was a political lesson that she will not soon
Itzik is worried. As a former Knesset speaker, a three-time
minister and two-time acting president, she has a list of concerns that she set
out in an interview in a Jerusalem cafe a few days ago, beginning with Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to make a major policy address in
Washington later this month, thousands of kilometers away from his electorate,
and ending with voters’ tendency to choose parties that increase the
sectoralization of Israeli society.
Excerpts: You’ve been in the Knesset for a
long time, and in leadership roles throughout the past decade. What do you think
that this coming Knesset session will look like?
It will definitely be more
political than legislative.
It will be shadowed by the elections in the
Labor Party, and I think it will create a lot of political disquiet.
think that what is happening outside will also influence what happens at home.
There is a lack of quiet in the Middle East – that’s an understatement – which I
think will also influence our political climate.
It has certainly begun
to influence the Israeli public, which is trying to figure out what is
happening, what is the significance of what is happening, and what does it mean
It is impossible to exaggerate regarding the scale of the drama
playing out across the Middle East, and now there is also the additional drama
of the alliance between Hamas and Fatah.
The Knesset is not completely
cut off from all of these influences; it cannot be. Some members of the public
will be frustrated that there is no foreign policy plan. The left wing of the
Likud cannot sit silently – they feel a need to respond and push, to ask what
the plans are and where the government is going. Kadima will have to focus more
on foreign policy issues as well.
I don’t think this will be a session
dominated by elections.
That will come in the winter. But I do think that
it will be a session of disquiet, of questions.How are the regional
events coming into play in the Knesset, practically speaking?
What is happening
in the region is reflected in Israel, and what is felt in Israel is reflected in
There are many attempts by extra-parliamentary groups to
organize. There were groups that developed independent initiatives [and] asked
me to present their plans to the Kadima faction, and I know that they also did
the same with other faction chairs. The background of inaction [by the Netanyahu
government], combined with the situation in the region, creates a general
feeling that something must be done.
Again, I do not think this disquiet
will create a situation in which we go to elections – although in Israel, you
can never be certain.Could it create the opposite? There have been a
number of calls for a unity government in advance of September?
As an almost
fervent supporter of a unity government, and as someone who failed abysmally in
my attempts to establish one after the last elections, I am sorry to say – I’ll
say something that I don’t think many politicians are willing to say – that a
lot of ego prevented a unity government. At the end of the day, I imagined a
project-based government that put egos to the side in order to advance an
overall plan that took into consideration the highly complicated
[That this did not happen] is not just the
prime minister’s fault. Bibi is not guilty of everything. He is quite
responsible for a large part of it, but not everything. It would be stupid and
superficial to say that he was.
In order to form a national unity
government, Netanyahu would have to present a good reason for it. First, he
apparently can get along by himself. If he did say, “Come in,” he’d have to tell
us for what purpose.
Just to join the government for the title? There
needs to be a reason – if, for instance, he’s lacking in votes for a specific
Apparently he doesn’t have a reason yet.If unity isn’t
necessarily the answer, what should Israel do in September when the Palestinians
will most likely succeed in passing a unilateral declaration of statehood at the
UN General Assembly?
They have already practically done it; declaring statehood
isn’t really something that is altogether new. I certainly don’t think that we
should annex anything [in the West Bank in response]. It is simply not an
I think we need to see where [the process] going. I would
continue to talk to Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] and to the moderate
wing of the Palestinians.
The Palestinians are taking advantage of the
situation, of division in Israel. This is one of the reasons I wanted a unity
Public figures, in our democracy, even when they have a clear
plan, need to have public support behind them. If there were someone who tried
to really lead something, they would find that they could rely on public
support. I think that it would reduce psychological tension.
heart-rending and nation-rending decisions to be made here. The premiership is
one of the most difficult and terrible jobs in the world because it brings with
it responsibility for the Jewish people as a whole.
And this period is a
difficult period. There have been other difficult periods, some maybe even more
difficult than the current one, but it is a period that justifies very high
So to return to the question of what to do – certainly the
answer is not to break off contacts [with the Palestinians] for two
[Former prime minister Ehud] Olmert kept those contacts open, even
though he didn’t actually give them anything. He had widespread international
support; leaders from across Europe came here under Olmert [to show solidarity
with Israel], even after two wars. It wasn’t 100 years ago.
There is no
greater injustice than the current portrayal of Israel as refusing peace. I am a
great believer in the individual Israeli.
Israelis really want peace.
Promise them security, and they are ready to make concessions.
correctly trepidatious – and they tend to think both from the heart and the
head. Because the reality here is a little heart and a little head.
one hand it is clear that we don’t want to control another people. We understand
what the price is. On the other hand, when we left [Gaza in 2005], terror filled
And so we are more hesitant.
We are fearful, and we vote
according to our fear, but one day, when there is a leader on our side, and a
leader on their side who will convince the Israeli public that they will really
receive security in exchange for territories, most of the public will support
it.Netanyahu is going to Washington to present some sort of a
He is going to [set out a plan in] Washington, and that really
annoys me. I say to myself: He is going to present a program that will impact
all of our lives. What, are you a Republican senator? You’re not part of the
Israeli nation? You can’t tell the Knesset, your ministers? What are you going
to say? Given what is happening all around us, people here expect to hear from
him more, and it is really hard to understand that the prime minister is
traveling to America [to talk about it].Why do you think, especially as
a former Knesset speaker, Netanyahu is shying away from the platform offered by
the Knesset to present his plans?
It is not just an issue of maintaining the
institution of the Knesset. It is much bigger than that.
Of course, as
someone for whom the Knesset is important, I believe that it is an appropriate
platform [for unveiling diplomatic plans], but the question is even greater
You need to talk to the public, or at least with your ministers.
The ministers are the ones who should be determining yes or no.
that, this places his ministers in an untenable position. How is it that none of
the ministers is standing up and asking, “Excuse me, where is this all going?”
What about the septet [of key ministers]? It is okay to say at this stage, “I
need to wait and see where things are going,” but he doesn’t even say
First, I think that he invited himself to America – which is fine,
because American opinion is very important. But I hope that he is not making the
trip in spite of [US President Barack] Obama, but rather with Obama.
also understand – and he must, too – that America is one of our only true
allies, and we cannot give up on it. I hope that he is not speaking behind
Obama’s back, but rather in coordination with the president.
our own Knesset and our own representatives, there is also the question of
America – and I hope that he is working in coordination with the administration
and not taking advantage of a certain majority within Congress. The situation
with the Republican majority is very delicate, and Netanyahu must be very
careful. Israel must be very careful: We were always supported both by the
Democrats and the Republicans, and Israel must not be seen as taking a specific
side.You stress that not all of Israel’s political problems can be
blamed on the prime minister. Is there a problem with the system as a whole?
When I say that Bibi isn’t responsible for everything, part of the problems that
I’m thinking of are those related to the electoral system. All of the large
parties have said that they are in favor of changing the electoral system. You
ask yourself why Israelis don’t learn. The lack of governing ability in Israel
is not just dependent on the prime minister.
It is true that there are
stronger and weaker prime ministers, but ultimately they are dependent on their
coalitions, which leads to what the public perceives as a sort of bartering
situation. What can prime ministers do? They need to make deals, and what
frequently looks to the public like wheeling and dealing seems to the prime
minister to be an effort to stabilize the government.
I can never
understand the Israeli voter: Why give the small parties so much power? What is
the logic behind it? Why don’t you just form one big bloc? You want Left, vote
Left; you want Right, vote Right. Create big parties so that things can be run
without all of these negotiations. Imagine what a system with fewer parties
would have done for Kadima in the last elections; five more mandates would have
made all the difference for us.
Thus every vote here is
The Israeli voter can be mature, but has the tendency to go
toward divisions – always looking for something new. When you select a specific
garage or a specific doctor, you ask them what their experience is, what their
past is. But the government is your chief surgeon, and yet you don’t ask the
The public expects a change to the electoral system, but
it could be that this simply will not happen until voters understand that they
must push for it. They must push the politicians every day and ask them to
account for what they did each day to change the electoral system.
warn that not all the problems will be solved even if we change the system.
Israel has serious issues, deep tears within the society.But what
benefits would come from changing the system?
It would reduce what appears to
be, in the public’s eyes, extortion to reach coalition agreements. At the same
time, sectoral interests could still be represented within the framework of
In America, the Hispanic community, for instance, finds
political expression within the larger parties. Our current framework encourages
rifts, rather than helps them disappear.
The change must also be done
very carefully, very slowly.
You don’t get an opportunity to readjust and
readjust. And, of course, there is the argument regarding which electoral
system. I have learned that there is no one system that is perfect. Every system
has holes, but you need to take the best possible one.
Soon, Kadima will
submit a bill to begin to chip away at the subject of electoral
We are really focusing on this subject. I don’t even care who
takes credit. I just want to see a majority in support of it. I would be lying
if I said that there are no arguments within certain blocs. For instance, the
electoral threshold [that must be crossed for a party to get Knesset
representation] is something that must be addressed. A large portion of both the
Right and Left blocs oppose raising it because they are well aware that it would
have a serious impact on their parties.The left wing could disappear
But it is likely that it will just become part of a larger
amalgamated party. There are now 13 parties in the Knesset, and so people vote
for all 13. It could well be that if people know in advance that there are only
four or five [parties likely to win seats], then people will be able to find
themselves politically among those four or five.