Three years into her career as a lawmaker, Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar made her mark on the Knesset in a way some veteran lawmakers are still dreaming of. The chairwoman of the State Control Committee is indisputably a rising political star, and unlike some of her colleagues, made a name for herself in the Knesset without attention- grabbing stunts, through sheer will, perseverance and hard work.
THE MOMENT one meets Elharar, 39, it’s obvious that she knows how to overcome obstacles. Elharar has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, as her mobility is extremely limited. Yet she took politics, a challenging career for anyone, head-on, and when she stands at the helm of her committee, it’s like any other MK is up there – or at least any other no-nonsense MK who doesn’t cut the government any slack, as behooves a good Control Committee head.
The Knesset has two major roles. One is to pass laws, the role that generally gets the most public attention, and the other is to monitor government actions.
The Control Committee is the pillar of that second role.
“Supervising the government is the most important job,” Elharar explained.
“We can pass laws all day, but if no one implements it, then what’s the point?” Elharar’s position gives her a unique ability among opposition MKs not only to call government ministers to task, but to subpoena them to respond to criticism from state comptroller’s reports, if necessary, and she receives sensitive materials relating to national security.
It’s those national security issues that have made major waves recently, as most of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report on Operation Protective Edge came out this month. The report warned that the next war is likely to feature tens of thousands of rockets raining on Israeli civilians, but that warning systems, bomb shelters and evacuation plans are not ready for such events.
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Elharar spoke to The Jerusalem Post shortly after leading a meeting to discuss Shapira’s criticism of the government, Defense Ministry and National Security Council (NSC) for delaying plans to evacuate as many as 300,000 people in border areas under the threat of rockets.
The Yesh Atid MK posited that one of the biggest problems is that ministers in the security cabinet are not properly briefed and cannot productively take part in decision-making.
“The failures the comptroller points out need to be taken care of,” she said.
“I want to make sure the cabinet is up to date on all scenarios and that the NSC updates them. The security cabinet has the power to send soldiers into battle, and I want to make sure all the ministers have enough knowledge. Most of the ministers don’t deal with security issues in their day-to-day jobs, so it’s important that they have a designated secretary to the NSC.”
When the ministers don’t get enough information, Elharar warned, “they’re not ready, but they’re making fateful decisions on matters of life and death.
“If they don’t know what the threat is, how do they know what plan of action to vote on? If they don’t know the situation on the home front, how do they know whether to evacuate people or not?” she asked.
Elharar called the current situation a failure of leadership.
“With all due respect to the prime minister and defense minister, it’s not all about them, which is why there’s a cabinet,” she stated.
IN THE months before the report’s release, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed many journalists about his actions during the operation, specifically in dealing with Hamas terrorist tunnels from Gaza, which he said contradicted the comptroller’s report. As a result, the chapter on the tunnels has yet to be released.
“If the prime minister has nothing to hide, why is he so stressed about [the report]?” Elharar wondered. “It would be appropriate if he dealt with the actual points the comptroller made.
“When you don’t want to deal with criticism and you don’t have good answers for it, you say the comptroller isn’t serious. Netanyahu says he’s focusing on the results of the operation; well, the results weren’t that good.
When the strongest and most moral army in the Middle East goes up against a poorly organized guerrilla organization, I don’t call this a good result. I don’t understand what he’s talking about,” she said.
Asked if she thinks her committee has an influence on security matters, Elharar said not immediately, but it pushes the ministries to create plans and rethink the way they work.
This year’s fires, as compared to the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire, showed where the committee excels, she said.
In the aftermath of the Mount Carmel fire, in which 44 people died, the State Control Committee was instrumental in leading the government to review its failings in dealing with the disaster.
“I think it shows the power of the committee. Maybe you don’t always see the results right away... but it makes ministries work, even if it takes time,” she stated.
ELHARAR COULD not serve in the army because of her disability, but she still commands respect from senior security figures attending her committee meetings.
“At the first meeting when the room was full of people at the highest level in the army, I think they were surprised that a woman in a wheelchair who didn’t do army service [was at the helm],” she recounted. “There were things I didn’t know but people in the field did, but over time people get used to it.
“In Israel, there are still people who take men with a serious army background more seriously, but we see in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and in our committee that women can do a serious job,” she added.
ELHARAR CERTAINLY has never let anyone take her less seriously because of her disability. She was told she had muscular dystrophy at age nine, but insisted on walking as long as she could, managing to graduate high school on her feet.
She went to law school in Israel, and then got a master’s degree at American University in Washington, DC. After that, she managed Bar-Ilan University’s legal clinic to help disabled people and moved up to run all of the university’s legal clinics.
Elharar brought her experience in helping people with disabilities to the Knesset, and uses both the State Control Committee and other parliamentary tools to do so.
Her office is a site for “pilgrimages” for disabled people, Elharar said. They ask for information on dealing with the National Insurance Institute and other areas, and her background helps her do the job well.
“I came into politics on a social ticket, and I try to use [the committee] as a platform to promote social issues.
For example, people have certain rights, and exercising them should be easy. Bureaucracy is one of the biggest problems. Even when you have the right to something, you have to go through four different offices with documents and people sending you from one place to another. It’s very difficult. I try to use the committee to simplify things, so people can knock on one door to get the solutions they need,” she explained.
Elharar is also focused on helping families with small children with disabilities, saying that early childhood is when the most care is needed.
“We need rehabilitative daycare centers for as broad a population as possible, so that children with disabilities get what they need and need to take fewer special classes. It’s a budgetary issue that I’m dealing with,” she explained.
Elharar was also a signatory on a bill to raise disability benefits to be equal to minimum wage, which made waves when it passed a preliminary vote in the Knesset this month. While it’s unlikely to move forward, Elharar expressed hope that progress could be made on some version of it.
“In the current political circumstances, it won’t happen. I think it’s a worthy bill, but I believe in doing things gradually. I heard that coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) says he believes in it but wants there to be a dialogue. I’m going to propose to him that there be five stages until we reach minimum wage,” she said.
Elharar called the current situation, in which people with disabilities receive a maximum guaranteed income of NIS 2,340, “embarrassing.”
“The state set a minimum wage for everyone, and it expects someone with more needs to get half of that minimum,” she said.
ELHARAR’S PARTY, Yesh Atid, is rising in the polls, with it surpassing the Likud in some polls in recent months.
“Tfu, tfu, tfu,” Elharar said – warding off the evil eye – when the poll numbers were mentioned, yet she wouldn’t speculate about the party’s future.
“The polls are very flattering. It’s great fun to see them, but a lot can happen before it really happens,” she quipped, while admitting that, if she were to become a minister, she would like the welfare or justice portfolio.
Meanwhile, Elharar credits her party’s success with it not automatically opposing whatever the government does.
“We’re not an opposition; we’re an alternative. We’re not going to be against the government just to be against the government,” she explained. “We want what’s good for the public, and if that means voting with the government, we’ll do it, and if not, not. ‘Opposition’ is not a job description, and opposing is not our goal.”
“Our goal is to see things through the citizens’ eyes, not all these games of who gets what job. We’re here to serve the public,” Elharar said.
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