Anything but rebellious

"We should be fearless in international forums. We have a great story to tell and we have to take our case to the world," says new Labor MK Einat Wilf, who idolized Netanyahu as a teenager.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN, REBECCA ANNA STOIL
January 19, 2010 01:00
Independence MK Einat Wilf

Labor MK Einat Wilf. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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So much for anyone who thought she would be a rebel. Labor rebels Eitan Cabel and Amir Peretz both claim that they worked tirelessly to ensure new MK Einat Wilf's election to the Knesset, and Cabel's brother Boaz is her political adviser. But Wilf, who replaced rebel MK Ophir Paz-Pines in the Knesset last week, will certainly not fill his shoes ideologically.

While Paz-Pines believed that everything the government did was wrong and thought that Labor joining the coalition was a sin, Wilf told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at her new office in the Knesset on Sunday that its presence in the coalition was helping both the government and the country.

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Wilf, 40, said she was skeptical about the ability of any Israeli leader to advance the peace process in the current situation, maintained that Labor chairman Ehud Barak could return to the Prime Minister's Office and praised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's performance in his second tour of duty.

But what makes Wilf the least likely candidate to join a rebellion intended to bring down the Likud-led government was her admission that as a teenager in the 1980s, she was a Netanyahu "groupie."

While Netanyahu went to MIT and Wilf went to rival Harvard, he now can see her as a loyal ally whose presence in the Knesset in Paz-Pines's stead has quashed the Labor rebellion and given him one less internal problem to worry about amid the many challenges that lie ahead.

A sabra who has spent much of her life abroad, Wilf got a wake-up call in dealing with the Hebrew press last week when she gave her first interview as an MK to Yediot Aharonot. Instead of focusing on her and her policies, the article was about her recent marriage to Richard Gutjahr, a German anchorman who is not Jewish.

She said that in the Knesset she would prefer to find herself on only two committees - inheriting Paz-Pines's spot on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and sitting on the Education Committee, a field to which she has devoted a large amount of thought in recent years. Unlike Paz-Pines, who was an inveterate legislator, Wilf believes that there are limitations to what the Knesset should attempt to rectify through legislation, and says that instead she would like to see the Knesset's role as a government oversight body reemphasized.

You lobbied for the post of ambassador to the United Nations. Would you jump ship from the Knesset if offered the position?

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Serving as Israel's ambassador to the UN is what I wanted to do since I was 15. I read all of [the late UN ambassador and then foreign minister] Abba Eban's books. I was a groupie of the present prime minister when he was UN ambassador and I was a teenager. I admired his work. It motivated me to go abroad and study as an important rite of passage to help me fill that role. Everything that sits at the intersection of Israel, Zionism, the Jewish people and the world fascinated me. But that's off the table now. Now I want to be Israel's ambassador to the world from the Knesset.

How would you act as ambassador from the Knesset?

Israel is facing a difficult international moment. Elements in the international community have crossed the line from questioning the government to questioning the Zionist idea. We see the questioning of whether Zionism was right to begin with and whether the Jewish people have a right to a homeland.

Regardless of disagreements about specific policies, we should be insistent on defending our basic rights. There are countries in the world that make much less sense than Israel and no one ever questions the reason for their existence. Israel is still struggling in that battle, and to the extent that I can contribute to that fight, I will. I have been meeting delegations that come from abroad for many years for AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee. Now that I have official standing as an elected official, there are more forums available in which I can represent Israel.

Based on your experience, what can Israel do to improve its public diplomacy?

We often fall prey to the other side's trap of mixing together specific policies and Zionism, and we don't insist they be separate. We don't go on the offensive enough. I think that opposition leader Tzipi Livni should have gone to London [when an arrest warrant was issued for her in Britain]. She missed a golden opportunity. Had she gone, either she would have called their bluff and the bogeyman of arrests would have been exposed, or she would have had an opportunity to make her case and op-eds would've been written about it. The notion of staying in Israel in fear of lawsuits is very un-Israeli. We should be fearless in international forums. We have a great story to tell and we have to take our case to the world.

What should we have done about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

We can make Israel's displeasure known but be smart about it. I'm not in favor of letting it go or not protesting. Summon the ambassador. Be nice and diplomatic but there's no reason not to be strong, demanding and insistent with flair, grace and style.

What do you think about how the Foreign Ministry is currently being run?

The general policy and mood is right. Israel did let too many deeply disturbing things pass with no comment. We would be far more effective if we, as Teddy Roosevelt said, speak softly and carry a big stick.

What Knesset committees do you want to be on?

Foreign Affairs and Defense and Education.

As an expected future chair of the Knesset Immigration Absorption and Diaspora Committee according to the coalition agreement, what should be changed about Israel's approach to Western aliya?

I'm not sure I will get that job. I have been involved in redefining the relationship between Israel and world Jewry and aliya. We are done with Hercules planes taking olim from disaster zones. We need to shift to individual aliya of people who do it by choice. For that we need to change Israel itself. If Israel had close to the American GDP, more people would come. Israel has to make itself more attractive and make it cost less to make aliya.

I support initiating vouchers for private suppliers like Nefesh B'Nefesh, the Jewish Agency and other providers who could specialize, for instance, in British students, French academics, etc. There could be vouchers for ulpans, real estate agents, etc. There should partial aliya for people who continue to work abroad. In an era when the world is open and people work through the Internet, it doesn't make sense to talk of people moving to a country for the rest of their lives and that's it. The more flexible we are, the more people we could reach who would at least contribute some of their talent.

How would you change the country's policies on education?

I presented a plan in my book, Back to Basics: The Road to Saving Education in Israel (at no additional cost): Step 1 is stabilization - returning a teaching/learning environment to schools with clear and strict rules and sanctions when behavior is not upheld, providing backing to teachers who uphold the rules and insisting on not doing anything else to change the system until stabilization is achieved.

Step 2 is reforming the teacher training process so it meets the needs of the teachers. Teachers rarely train teachers. Experienced teachers need to train them for what they teach in class. Meanwhile, in the afternoons, schools should be more student-run like in the US, with sports teams, choirs, drama, investment clubs, etc, which don't cost much. The last phase is experimentation with new models of schooling.

Is Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar going in the right direction?

I have worked very closely with him. I presented him with my plan and the support of teachers for these steps. He changed the Students' Rights Law to take out some of its more problematic parts. For instance, now children cannot stay in school while they are being disciplined for extreme violence. A directive was issued reinstating the right of teachers to send children out of class if they misbehave. It's still used rarely in Israel. It should be used frequently because it's the only way to get the message through. Teachers shouldn't be responsible for those who undermine learning. Sa'ar's proposal to add school uniforms is a good idea too.

What legislation will you try to pass on education?

Legislation on education should be used sparingly. Legislating the rights of students brought legalization into the schools. Teacher-student relations shouldn't be legislated. I will work to minimize education legislation, except for parent fees, which need clear policies across the board. I also don't want to legislate content, such as bills requiring visiting Jerusalem. But I would have the Knesset intervene to prevent the country from funding an education system that raises people not to work. The country shouldn't fund systems that trap people and prevent them from having skills that could help them interact with the external world.

Why are you such an opponent of changing the political system?

I don't think that things are messed up. We think things are messed up because we lack an international perspective. Each system has its pros and cons. The Israeli system stands up to countries we wish to compare ourselves to. We just don't really understand other systems. We talk about buying votes in coalitions. If people saw what it took to buy the votes of 435 congressmen on health care reform, Israelis would be horrified. The US system purposely discourages legislators' effectiveness, because they don't want the government to be able to carry out any harebrained ideas.

The Israeli system has been incredibly effective. Israel is one of only 21 democracies that since 1948 have not had any major crisis in the system, such as civil war, a coup or a suspension of rights or of the constitution. Considering that we have had massive aliya, waged and won wars, it's a tremendous achievement.

What changes would you make?

I support strengthening the Knesset's oversight capacities. We emphasize the legislative but oversight is important, such as the right to subpoena ministers. MKs need more staffers with more substantial salaries. Here you get two aides, who because of the salary, tend to be young. We should be able to hire people with substantial experience. The fact that MKs tend to be on numerous committees, many of which are meeting at the same time, weakens the effectiveness of the Knesset. I also think more power has to be given to the municipalities. We should leave the parliament for major national issues and allow municipalities to ensure the quality of life of the citizens.

I would also raise the electoral threshold slowly and carefully.

Why do you oppose electing a portion of the Knesset in direct, regional elections?

Electing MKs regionally would be a disaster. In the US, gerrymandering has allowed representatives to select their voters. We have a reasonable turnover rate in the parliament here - one-third of the Knesset is replaced every Knesset. In the US, it's impossible to get rid of the incumbent. It's a massive opening for corruption. The last thing Israel needs is narrow representation of extremely local interests. Israel is too small for that.

Many people who make aliya to Israel from Western countries go bonkers about who their congressman is, but they just need to adjust to the fact that in Israel, the mediator between the elected officials and the citizens is the party. There has to be recognition of that.

Does the Labor Party have a future?

In Israeli politics, it ain't over until it's over, and even then, it's still not over. I see the potential for a bright future for Labor. All we need is to make clearer what we are and what we are not, and for Kadima to disappear. There are words used like social and social-democratic, but that which really defined Labor was pragmatic Zionism without the extremes of messianism and naïve views. Even its socialism, if you look historically, was always in the service of the Zionist idea. Mapai, as opposed to Mapam, was not dogmatic about a system of socioeconomic thought. It was always in the service of realizing the Zionist idea.

How do you sell that to people?

Not just in Israel, people want politicians who solve problems, period. They are looking less for a complete ideology. They are looking for a certain pragmatism, a certain judgment. As a society, we understand more the price of certain ideologies. If we are clear, we might find more support for it than expected.

Can Barak rehabilitate Labor?

He is the leader. I don't appreciate Labor's tendency to bring leaders, throw all hopes on them and when they fail to achieve the impossible goals we set for them, cast them away. We need to shift more responsibility to the party and stop putting all the responsibility on the leader. While Barak is not a simple person, the time can come when people realize that he is what they are looking for. I recognize that most people don't see it now, but if you look at history, when contexts changed, the veteran leaders made sense when before they didn't.

So you don't intend to rebel?

I have made it clear from the first day that in the parliamentary system, the seat belongs to the party. No one put my name on the ballot, they put Labor. Given that, I don't intend to take my seat to another party. The party is headed for consolidation. The threat of a split is gone. People realize that no matter what reservations they have about the chairman and about being in the coalition, the problems should be resolved from inside the party.

Was it right for Labor to join the government?

I favored a compromise proposal to go to the opposition for six months to rethink our future. I didn't like the demonizing of Netanyahu. That was unacceptable. The party's decision to join has been good for the government and for the country. But the party has paid the price. We certainly have had a good impact on the direction the government has been taking, and we have to continue to make sure it goes the way we want.

How has Netanyahu been doing as prime minister?

Certainly better than last time. He has learned since then. He has moderated the destructive tendencies he had against the elites of Israeli society. All that is gone. He has been better at finding a middle road with coalition partners, moving ahead with some issues without risking the coalition.

As a Labor MK, I believe we need to use any opportunity to advance the peace process. But we can't ignore that we have had a quiet year security-wise, the economic situation in the West Bank has improved dramatically, the settlement freeze has gone farther than any other government before. This from my perspective has worked in his favor.

Who is more at fault for the lack of diplomatic process: Netanyahu, the Palestinians or US President Barack Obama?

The blame game is useless. It is wrong to put the blame on Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Obama. There was an opportunity to reach an agreement when the Soviet Union fell and the US was the only game in town, but even then it didn't happen.

Can an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement be reached in the current situation?

I don't know. This is why a Likud-Labor government is possible. Right now there is nothing on the table. There is deep skepticism, even from people like myself, about whether the Palestinians care more about getting state of their own than preventing Israel from remaining a Jewish state.

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