‘The Knesset’s recess wasn’t long enough,” MK Yariv Levin (Likud) said this week, at the end of a three-month break from legislative activity. “I used to get excited to go back, but not this time.”
Sipping a vanilla milkshake at a Tel Aviv café surrounded by hi-tech offices, he recounted a conversation with his frequent ally, Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked, that exemplifies the poisonous atmosphere in the coalition: “She said she just wants the winter session to be over already – and it only starts next week!” Still, the end of the always-lengthy summer recess marks at least one change Levin sees as positive – Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ze’ev Elkin will replace him as coalition chairman.
“One of the things that most concerns me about no longer being coalition chairman is what I will do when I’m not being threatened on the phone every day that someone will leave the government or vote against the government,” he said sarcastically, but clarified: “This happened every day. I’m not exaggerating.”
Levin has been in the Knesset for fewer than six years, but he already misses the good old days: “What’s missing in politics today is responsibility.
The whole time I was here, I felt that if you have the privilege to sit in the government and the Knesset, there is a lot of responsibility. You can’t create a crisis over everything... you have to be responsible so the government and Knesset can function and run this country with all its challenges.”
One of the major indicators of this irresponsibility is how cabinet ministers behaved during Operation Protective Edge, he said, criticizing a culture of “non-stop leaks and decisions influenced by the headlines, one of the saddest phenomena of the current Knesset.”
Ministers would vote in favor of a decision in cabinet meetings, then go to the press and badmouth that same decision, Levin pointed out.
“If someone feels like he can’t take responsibility for a decision, he should say so, but then he should resign. A person can’t be part of making a decision and then campaign against it when he backed it a minute ago,” he stated.
The coalition’s biggest problem, according to Levin, is that the Likud is small – with the departure of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar next week, it will have only 18 seats – and there are many parties in the coalition, whose leaders see themselves as future prime ministers. Every coalition partner can make threats, because any one of them could bring down the government.
“The fact that the leading party is small means it cannot lead the way, and just needs to negotiate what its partners want,” he explained. “Each partner feels he can demand things be the way he wants it, whether it’s to pass a bill or stop someone else’s.
This leads to paralysis.”
Because the parties in the coalition disagree on substantial issues like peace talks and religion and state, they are constantly at a standstill, unwilling to compromise and threatening to leave.
The threats reflect irresponsibility, as opposed to a real desire to dismantle the government. However, “they create a dynamic that can get out of control at some point and bring an early election.”
Levin expressed hope that in the next election, the political map will go back to having two large, major parties with smaller satellites. This, he posited, would make the coalition more workable.
“I know the polls don’t show this will happen.
This is a democracy and the people decide, so I can only tell those who are reading this to think about it. We all pay the price [of a fragmented Knesset]. No one can run even the smallest business under these conditions,” he said, adding that more Likud MKs and ministers are necessary for the next government to be more stable.
Meanwhile, though, Levin pointed to the glue keeping the coalition together despite its differences: Most of the parties will have fewer seats than they do now if there is an election.
Despite all the problems within the coalition, Levin thinks leaving things as they are is better than the instability holding elections every two years brings.
The Likud MK said he would have preferred a government with the haredi parties, but it would be impossible to switch out the parties he sees as difficult – like Yesh Atid – for Shas and United Torah Judaism, because Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman vetoed any changes to the coalition.
As such, Levin does not see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocking a bill by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern allowing local rabbis to conduct conversions, as a gesture toward the haredim because an election is nigh. Rather, he said, it is another indication of coalition parties’ irresponsibility.
“Netanyahu has no choice. This is an important issue and it needs a solution, but it has to be one with a broad consensus, at the very least within religious-Zionism and if possible, beyond that,” Levin explained. “For the prime minister to back a government decision on conversion proposed by [Justice Minister Tzipi Livni], which the Religious Services Minister [Naftali Bennett] and his deputy [Eli Ben-Dahan] oppose, is not logical.”
Levin said he thinks a compromise on conversion is possible, but that the religious-Zionist mainstream sees Stern as an antagonist.
“If the messenger was someone else, we could have bridged the gap more easily. We can’t make the prime minister responsible for that because the people responsible for it don’t want to take care of the problem,” Levin stated, referring to Bennett and Ben-Dahan.
ALL OF these coalition concerns will be behind Levin in a few days. He will keep his jobs as Knesset House Committee chairman and leader of the Foreign Affairs and Defense subcommittees on Intelligence and the Defense Budget, and is scheduled to replace Elkin as chairman of the prestigious panel on diplomatic and defense issues in January – if he’s not appointed to a ministerial post by then, that is.
Elkin and Levin have become major Likud power- players, convincing – some say strong-arming – Netanyahu into giving them the shared leadership of the sensitive Knesset committee, after the prime minister deliberated between other options for six months.
Now, the two say there is another part of the deal.
Levin is certain that after Sa’ar’s post is freed, he will be made a minister – eventually. He’s less sure Netanyahu will make a decision anytime soon.
Netanyahu offered Communications Minister Gilad Erdan the Interior Ministry along with continued oversight over reforms in the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which he is considering, but the MK who will take Erdan’s place is still unknown.
“I have a clear arrangement with the prime minister that when a ministerial job opens up, I will get it,” he said, shrugging off Likud MK Gila Gamliel’s assertion that Netanyahu promised her the promotion.
“I’m not responsible for what other people say, but I am patient and I am convinced that when a minister will be chosen, it will be according to my agreement with the prime minister.”
Levin and Elkin both denied reports that Elkin threatened to not return to the coalition chairman post, which he held with aplomb in the previous Knesset, if Levin is not made a minister, but Levin indicated that the duo made its expectations clear.
“It is no secret that [Elkin and I] work in full cooperation.
We took upon ourselves the hardest job in this government, running the truly complex coalition, and we did it with the understanding and commitment that if there is no possibility for a new minister, we will split the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee job, and if it there is a possibility, then I will be minister and Ze’ev will lead the committee.
I think he’s right in wanting the agreement to be upheld. That’s the way it should be,” Levin said.
Levin called claims that Sa’ar is resigning from politics because of Netanyahu’s attitude toward successful Likudniks “ridiculous.”
“We can’t blame the prime minister, this isn’t unique to Likud,” Levin said, giving a long list of former politicians who resigned from their posts, including prime minister Menachem Begin. “Leaving politics is normal. It happens all the time in parties all over the world. This isn’t an easy job. A person has to invest a lot of time and give up a lot to serve the public, and it’s natural that everyone has a point in which he wants to do something else with his life.”
Levin said he spoke to former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who is forming a new party, and that he told Kahlon he is making a mistake in further fragmenting the political field – and that they both got opportunities in politics from the Likud.
“I don’t think either of us could have reached what we did without Likud,” he said, calling the party an excellent platform for young leaders to grow.
“We are among the only parties that are truly democratic, in which people are elected, not appointed by the leader. We have activities in universities and local chapters, and then people move up to the party. I was elected to the Knesset at age 39, did a long list of jobs, and I don’t think anyone tried to stop me,” he stated.
At the same time, Levin scoffed at those who claim Netanyahu is too defensive of his leadership post.
“Do people want him to quit and give his seat to someone else just because that person thinks it’s his turn? That is clearly unreasonable,” Levin said.
Although Levin did not think an election was imminent, he backed Netanyahu’s call for an early leadership primary in Likud, just in case.
“Every other party is ready for an election. They know who their leader is – even Labor had its primary already – and Likud can’t be in a situation in which an election is called and we only start choosing the head of our party,” he said.
Referring to Likud central committee chairman MK Danny Danon’s refusal to hold the primary immediately, Levin added: “We should elect a party leader, but have a date that allows it to take place in an organized and democratic way. If someone wants to postpone by a few weeks, we can reach an agreement on that.”
Levin was unequivocally certain Netanyahu would be reelected by a large margin: “The prime minister has broad support in Likud, and he will surely lead us in the next election.”
In the coming months, Levin will be responsible for preparing the defense budget for a final vote – and he has plenty of suggestions.
The argument about the defense budget is always whether to increase it or to cut it. “The truth,” Levin said, “is somewhere in the middle.”
“In order to have everything else we need, we have to be able to stand on our feet. When there is more terrorism, it reflects on everything else – the economy, tourism, and more. If there isn’t enough money for defense, then you didn’t really save money, because the whole market will drop as a result of problematic [security] situations,” he explained.
After studying the defense budget, Levin understood that more funding is necessary in some areas, which he would not specify because he “won’t reveal our weaknesses,” but that other areas can be made more efficient and the money saved can be moved to where it is needed.
One way to do that is to change the salary structure in the IDF, he said. Currently, salaries of career military people are determined by rank, but Levin thinks they should be determined by the market, with the exception of combat soldiers.
According to Levin, people with jobs that are in demand, like computer engineers, should make more than they do now in the IDF, so the military can attract the best. When it comes to jobs of which there is a surplus in Israel, like attorneys, the IDF should not be paying soldiers’ law school tuition and does not need to pay higher-ranking lawyers more than they would make outside of the army.
“We need creative thought, to think out of the box and use our resources in new ways to maximize the army’s utility,” he said. “By rebuilding the salary structure, we can use money more efficiently.”
When Levin becomes Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman, he hopes to reexamine the IDF’s defense philosophy in general, which ties into more efficient use of its funding.
“The IDF is built to fight against other armies with tanks, but today the reality is different and more complex. We shouldn’t cancel preparation for fighting a standing army, but the threats today are different. In the past, a tank was a huge advantage, but today anti-tank weapons are more advanced,” he explained Levin emphasized the importance of thinking about other ways of waging war.
“Maybe we need to invest more elsewhere and have more varied capabilities. If the army uses its resources better, we’ll save money and prevent a massive increase of the defense budget,” he said.
“But even if we do that, there needs to be an increase to maintain our level of security.”