'Portrayal of Israel as refusing peace a great injustice'

Politics: A candid interview with Kadima powerhouse Dalia Itzik on regional change and prime ministerial inaction.

Dalia Itzik  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Dalia Itzik
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
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 state.
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 government.
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 forget.
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.
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.
I 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 for us.
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 the Knesset.
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 diplomatic-security picture.
[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 endeavor.
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 answer.
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 government.
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.
There are 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 alertness.
So to return to the question of what to do – certainly the answer is not to break off contacts [with the Palestinians] for two years.
[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.
They are 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.
On 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 the void.
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 plan...
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 still.
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.
Beyond 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 this.
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.
I 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.
So beyond 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 significant.
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 same questions.
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.
I must 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 larger parties.
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 reform.
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 entirely.
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.