British university lecturers and other trade unionists are eagerly working on a boycott of Israeli institutions. Teens who fought the disengagement from Gush Katif are deciding whether they can join an army that expelled them from their homes. The legal establishment is in a battle to the death with the new justice minister over the independence of the justice system from political influence. And the ruling Kadima party is struggling to put down roots and grow as Ehud Olmert is hovering at a three-percent approval rating. These are just some of the issues Kadima MK Brig.-Gen. (res.) Amira Dotan deals with on a daily basis.
You would think that this workload would be too much for even the most organized of Knesset members: the logistics are extremely complex, and the political battles are cutthroat. So it's no surprise that Dotan, 60, the first woman in the history of the IDF to attain the rank of brigadier-general, approaches her work with the military discipline required to deal with multiple, complex and fluid issues. Her desk is full of files, folders, books and papers that deal with the concerns stated above and some more. What's also not surprising is the sense of order she projects: that each file and folder is labeled, every individual piece of paper is clearly marked: Their contents contain orders and decisions that influence the lives of real people.
Dotan, who was brought to Kadima from the private sector by another master of military discipline, Ariel Sharon, sits on eight influential Knesset committees: the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee; the State Control Committee; the Committee on the Status of Women; the Ethics Committee; the Committee on Foreign Workers; the Joint Committee for the Defense Budget; and the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on Wiretapping.
Dotan is no stranger to finessing contentious situations and working cooperatively: Prior to her political career, she worked as a mediator in her company, Gishur Neveh Tsedek.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post sat down with her to talk about her mission, which she sees as combatting a clear and present danger: the-ever widening rift between citizens and the government. Dotan believes it is necessary to change the formula of citizen involvement in politics - something she calls "content involvement" - and still believes Kadima can be the agent of that change.
Do you have any time to work on Kadima?
No, a very small amount of time. But I believe that while we are doing our Knesset work, it will reflect on Kadima's quality of people and the dedication to the work that we are doing. We were elected not just to be Kadima; we were elected to do something for the country.
Are you confident that Kadima is putting down roots?
I am part of Tzahi Hanegbi's committee [working to establish the party], which is really a think tank of how to create the Kadima that we long to have. When you speak with Israeli citizens, you can see that there is a need for a centrist party; and the promise that Kadima is the centrist party is something that people want to be a part of. Now it is up to us to deal with this notion and to build the party, which won't be Likud, which won't be Labor. I am not talking about the content; I am talking about the quality of people, the involvement of the people. What I have in mind is not just to be involved when you are needed, when they need to elect or to be elected, but an everyday kind of dialogue. In Israel, everyone is very much a part of what is going on, everyone is a prime minister, and everybody knows what has to be done, in a positive way.
The last polls show 97 percent of Israelis have no trust in the head of Kadima, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Can Kadima survive with this current situation?
I think the media has a more intelligent role than falling back on old slogans. There is a Kadima. Period. It's different. From this perspective, it's not Olmert. It's a group of people who are also mayors and council heads and people with no official roles, young and old. What I am talking about is that the involvement of Israelis is their vote on election day, whether for the party or the Knesset. What I want [for] Kadima is [to get people] involved all the time..
Everyone is talking about accountability. Half of Kadima is the government, which has a million tasks that it has to deal with, and half of it is the Knesset. Through the faction in the Knesset, we are building something new, and I am involved in this subject. Not in getting votes, but involvement in a program - in content involvement.
Are you saying that Kadima eventually will not be about its leader, but about content?
No, leadership is leadership. You need a leader. I am talking about a leader and the flow of abilities of information and accountability all the time - not once a year, not once in four years and not once in whatever. You need a leader for that, and not just one leader. I believe we will be able to do that.
You are on the public diplomacy subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Are you involved in fighting the British boycotts?
We know about it.
It seems it's happening every week.
That is right. I just came back from a meeting with parliamentarians from all over the world. I spoke with the British parliamentarians, and part of the discussion was this boycott that the British are leading, day-in and day-out. What they told me is that we are looking too much into our own backyard. We just see ourselves all the time, and it is about time that we see that we are part of the bigger picture - and the bigger picture is that they have the same problems of very radical leftist groups harming their constituency and their way of thinking, and they have to deal with it.
But what is Israel doing?
The Foreign Ministry is dealing with it, the Education Ministry is dealing with it, and the academicians are dealing with it.
What are you specifically involved in?
I am involved in two elements. One is with the British ambassador and with all the British members of parliament whom we meet occasionally and with the links that we have with some British decision-makers. This is part of what I do.
As you know, the Knesset is not a doer. The Knesset has two tasks. One is to write bills, and the second is to oversee the way the government is working. What the subcommittee of hasbara [public diplomacy] and foreign affairs is doing is overseeing what the Foreign Ministry is doing - and in this regard, because I came from the defense forces and because my area of expertise is looking at the map and seeing what needs to be done, this is what we do: look at the situation and find ways to do it better.
We have to understand that the war is not just the army; it is in hasbara as well. And once we understand that hasbara is different and democracy is not totalitarianism, we need to give ourselves praise that we are a democracy - not just hit ourselves and say how awful we are.
You are asking the media to be more
No. I am just asking the media to say we can do what we do because we operate in a democratic country.
What do you want from the Israeli media?
I came to the US when the BBC poll was that Israel was the most hated country. So I told my friends in New York that I feel awful that the BBC is working like that. They said, "Amira, why do you feel so awful? You know the BBC is polling mostly Muslims." I said, "What are you talking about?" And they gave me the information. So I am looking for someone to do the same in hasbara.
What I am looking for the hasbara in Israel to do is to acknowledge that you are working in a free country; that no one says what to do, no one controls you. ... I am not telling you what to do. I am telling you to really understand the different scopes in which you are working and in which our enemies are working. Someone needs to put it into writing.
This is what we like about ourselves: that no one shuts our mouth, no one tells us what to think and what to do. But with all this balagan [chaos], we have this wonderful country; we love it. We have everything that we need to be a Jewish country, and this is very different from what we see. Someone has to say it again and again. Then people will have the ability - and readers will have the tools - not just to talk about the content, but to know what you are talking about.
Are you trying to say that one of our selling points is the democratic nature of Israel? But isn't that one of the points that harms us, because we are a democratic country and the expectation of us from the West is much greater?
I am meeting friends from Europe and other parts of the world, and I see that they have the same problems; that we are not alone in these problems [of homegrown and international terrorism, etc.]. I want them to understand that it is not just words; that it is really a dilemma and there is no immediate and easy way out of these dilemmas. By being partners with these people, maybe we will be able to tackle those differences. They are shouting at us and I am shouting back at them.
In some way they inherited these problems. They feel responsible for Israel, however, because they created it in the UN.
I am not talking about them and Israel; I am talking about them and them. Germany has the same problems with immigration and emigration and development and the environment. I am talking about those issues, not Israel. We are so involved with Israel. What I want to do is to take ourselves out of the world conflict and say that you, Germany; you, France; you, England; and you other countries have the same problems that we have, because we are dealing with democracy. With that said, let us see what can be done.
How much are you working with the Foreign Ministry on their nation branding campaign? Is it effective?
Yes and no. I think that it is about time to rebrand Israel, but this is not enough. Because of that and because of the Internet and because of these new ideas, what I like is that people start to think out of the box, and thinking out of the box starts with branding and rebranding and continues into something else.
For example, sending Sderot people to France, Belgium and other countries to talk about themselves. Why can Hamas and the Palestinians do this and that, and we can't? I think it's a nice idea. Or using the Internet to bring up questions and answering them in blogs and things like that. What I am trying to say is that the old way has passed, and we are trying to find a new way. Because I belong to the old guard, what I would like to do is give strength to the new out-of-the-box thinkers. And it can be journalists, it can be students, it can be whoever, because this is the way to tackle problems - to think two steps ahead and to think differently.
How can PR be effective as long as Israel is still perceived as an occupying power?
Israel has been in the West Bank for 40 years, and for that, when you speak with people from other countries, they say, "We do not envy you. On one hand, you pulled out of Lebanon, and you see what happened in Lebanon. You pulled out of Gaza, and we see what is happening in Gaza. So we do not envy you. We understand what you want."
And this was Kadima's message. We would like to have some kind of unilateral withdrawal from the other areas ... but we see that whenever we pull out of somewhere, something happens. So maybe we have to rethink the whole thing from the beginning.
In this regard, the new Arab initiative - for me personally, and I am very glad the prime minister and [Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni are thinking alike - is a kind of a break. It is a new thing that people are starting to negotiate, and the fact that we have been in Jordan four times now, and that there are ongoing meetings with the Jordanians and the Palestinians, means something. So I am a great believer in telling ourselves the truth, and not hiding and thinking that no one sees. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil - this is nonsense. I want to see the map as it is.
What is going on now was not five months ago. There have been elections with Hamas, and we have to act according to what is going on - and for that you need to have leadership. You need people who really love the country, and not [Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi] Gaydamak, who is trying to build and buy leadership. For me this is a big threat.
I do not think that democracy is for sale, and you have to work very hard in order to [keep your democracy]. For instance, if you take Gaydamak, it is very easy to say, "I have billions of dollars, and therefore I will buy you a vacation."
The American Jewish community and western Jews do that all the time - they send millions of dollars to Israel.
To a country, not a person. It is controlled by the state. So this, for me, is a big threat.
You are saying that democracy is not for sale. But it seems that with all the polls, the country wants elections.
The population is looking for leadership. They do not want elections.
They do not trust the current leadership.
You could say that.
Polls show a three-percent approval rating.
You are right, but they are looking for leaders. It is like all of us; we would like very much for someone to take us and give us comfort and tell us how wonderful we are and that things will be okay....
We are 60 now. It is good when you are 10 and 20 and 30, but we are 60, and we cannot understand the psychology of that. Part of it is really longing for a leader that will really do things for us, but it is not occurring in any other democratic country. Not in the world and not in the United States and not in Europe. I do not see it. It is a dream, the psychological desire for this kind of comfort.
I would very much like people to understand that the wisdom is [to be found] with the people and involving the people.
Let's take Shabbat, for instance. There are some laws pending about Shabbat. What I have in mind, and what we would like, is for Israeli citizens to be involved in deciding what Shabbat will be for Israel. Involving people in the decision-making process is fairly new, and it works.
Shas, a coalition partner, won't let you change anything concerning Shabbat.
You are talking to me in the old way of thinking. How many voters did Shas have?
What about the coalition?
Forget about the coalition. I am talking about a different Israel, a different involvement. It won't happen tomorrow morning.
Have you brought it up with Shas?
No. Shas is not my constituency. Not the haredim and not the National Religious Party. My constituency is Likud, Labor, Kadima, Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu ... and I want to work with them to bring about a change.
Sheera Claire Frenkel and Molly Nixon contributed to this report.