Kadima’s kippa-clad maverick MK

Otniel Schneller is a walking, talking contradiction.

Otniel Schneller tours Egyptian border with Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Otniel Schneller’s Office)
Otniel Schneller tours Egyptian border with Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Otniel Schneller’s Office)
He is on the one hand a two-term Kadima Knesset member, while on the other an admitted fan of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and a skeptic of new party head Shaul Mofaz.
He wears a kippa, but he has been a friend to the gay community and he has passed legislation that has angered haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
He is a West Bank settler and a former secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, a central member of Israel’s team negotiating giving up land.
And he is a deep thinker in a workplace where many people say there is a shortage of those.
Those contradictions were in full display on March 27, the day Kadima members went to the polls. The party was split in two that day.
About half the faction went out campaigning for Mofaz and about half for Livni.
Schneller spent that day touring Israel’s southern border with Egypt alongside Netanyahu, who invited him because of his years of experience dealing with issues of borders and land. The tour raised eyebrows in Kadima, but Schneller was unapologetic.
“Whenever there is a conflict between helping the country and helping my own political future, the country will always come first,” he says. “I was proud to be beside the prime minister of Israel as decisions were made about the security of the country, and I appreciated that I was the only elected official he invited. I am in an opposition party, but I do not oppose the country and its people.”
Schneller found time to also cast a ballot for Mofaz that day at a polling station in Ma’aleh Adumim, not far from his home in the Binyamin community Ma’aleh Michmas. But he was noticeably absent from Mofaz’s victory party at Kadima’s headquarters in Petah Tikva.
While Schneller paints the way he spent that day in purely patriotic terms, there was clearly an element of political protest involved. Brought to the party by its founder, former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Schneller has not been content in Kadima for quite some time.
“I had long conversations with Sharon when he persuaded me to come to Kadima,” he recalls. “It was very hard to convince me. We agreed on what the party’s outlook would be on diplomatic, economic and Jewish issues. Today’s Kadima is not the Kadima of Sharon. It certainly was not under Livni. Whether it will be under Mofaz, I still don’t know.” When Schneller is asked for a couple of examples of how Livni led the party astray, he has trouble whittling down his list to only two.
He says Sharon had promised him that any withdrawals from Judea and Samaria would be conditioned on a referendum, which Schneller says is key to preventing civil war.
But when he proposed legislation enabling a future referendum, Livni enforced faction discipline against the bill and had him punished severely for voting for it.
Schneller blasts Livni and her predecessor as Kadima head, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, for supporting the American lobby J Street, which calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace but he says is neither.
He laments that the affiliation with J Street put Kadima “on the fringes of the Israeli Left,” indistinguishable from Meretz on diplomatic issues.
“Livni crossed the line between criticizing your government and your country,” Schneller says. “We became a leftist party that incites against haredim and settlers, and instead of criticizing the government’s actions as an opposition, we became partners in the criticism of the State of Israel. For us to remain a Zionist party, we needed to replace her.”
Schneller met with Mofaz after the primary in an effort to determine what the new chairman’s views are and how he will lead the party. He left the meeting somewhat reassured but still very skeptical.
“[Mofaz’s] basic views currently fit Kadima’s original outlook more than [Livni]’s, but I don’t know where his desire to be prime minister will lead him,” Schneller says. “Kadima voters are not Center-Right anymore. They are Center- Left and Left. If he goes after his potential voters, he will get closer to her views. If he leads in his own way, we will be closer to the Center-Right.”
Schneller believes the Center-Right of the political map is currently occupied by Likud, especially since Netanyahu adopted the two-state solution in a June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University.
“When one eye seeks a diplomatic agreement, the other eye cries over the price, and the heart is entirely with the Land of Israel, that is an expression of a fitting Center-Right Jewish Zionist Party,” he says.
“We have a new leader. If he goes in Livni’s path, I will call upon citizens of Israel not to vote for Kadima. If he changes her path and puts patriotism for the country ahead of the good of the party, the public can decide whom to vote for. I still do not know what party I would vote for.”
It is rare for a politician to admit that he does not know what party he will vote for. But Schneller is not your ordinary politician.
His focus is purely on ideology and he sees political parties as tools to legislate laws and make an imprint on the country’s future. He says he is sure that by next Independence Day he will know what Kadima will be and whether he can continue to use it as his “tool.”
Sounding very different from almost any other opposition MK, Schneller has nothing but praise for the current government, its leader, his policies, and what he has done in pursuit of peace.
“It is hard for me to be in the opposition when I think that on most issues, the government is functioning properly and the prime minister of Israel is running the country responsibly and professionally,” he says. “The current government did everything imaginable to advance the diplomatic process. This is the only government that froze [West Bank] construction for 10 months completely, even at the price of my children and grandchildren not having schools they needed.”
Schneller puts the blame for the current diplomatic stalemate on the changes in the Arab world, the Palestinian leadership and the American administration. He reveals that he went to Washington to speak to high-ranking American officials two or three weeks before Netanyahu’s last visit – not as an official emissary – but the prime minister was well aware of his meetings.
According to Schneller, US President Barack Obama’s mistakes included returning to incorrect concepts of Bill Clinton’s administration and assuming that both sides were willing to pay the price necessary to reach a final-status agreement. He says neither Israeli nor Palestinian society is willing to concede on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, and it was wrong of Obama to pursue a solution based on pre-1967 borders with equal land swaps to total the area of 100 percent of the West Bank.
“I get the impression that the American administration has matured and understands these things now,” he says. “I believe that after the election, if Obama wins, the experience he gained will help the diplomatic process advance.”
Schneller does not see elections happening any time soon in the Palestinian Authority, even though they were set to take place in May. He says it is important for Israel and the US to maintain dialogue with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s administration even though he believes Abbas neither wants an agreement with Israel nor can reach one.
“Abbas’s strategy is like an arc,” Schneller says using his hands. “He understands that to survive in power, he must simultaneously build a Palestinian state bottom-up and maintain the conflict to find common ground in his divided Palestinian society.
He needs both. Without the conflict, there cannot be a diplomatic process and he loses his government. But if he goes, Hamas and Iran can come in.”
Schneller puts most of the blame for the diplomatic impasse on the changes in the Arab world, which he says have created uncertainty in a region already affected by Iran’s nuclearization effort and Turkey’s Islamization. He suggests that one of the reasons Mofaz is shifting Kadima to deal with socioeconomic matters is that as head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he is privy to enough information to know that such changes would hinder diplomatic progress.
“[Mofaz] understands – like anyone who knows what they are talking about – that the blame does not lie in Jerusalem,” he says.
Schneller helped Mofaz draft his diplomatic plan, which calls for a two-stage withdrawal from 60% of the West Bank without evacuating settlements and then from 100 percent via land swaps. But Mofaz deviated from what Schneller advised him.
“The concept is correct, but the plan’s problem is the Palestinians cannot accept defining temporary borders,” he says.
“Rather than negotiations leading to a solution, I think reality will lead to it. In reality, 98% of Palestinians currently live in areas A and B, which make up 53% of the West Bank and practically already are a Palestinian state. Diplomatic separation and territorial contiguity can be achieved in the diplomatic process.”
Schneller has drafted a plan that goes in depth into the solution for every inch of territory and minimizes the number of Jews who would have to be evacuated, but he is purposely vague about it because he prefers to quietly persuade prime ministers to implement it. He has advised prime ministers from behind the scenes since Yitzhak Rabin drafted him to head the Israeli delegation on the transportation issue in talks with the PA.
He represented Israel at a November 1994 regional economic conference in Casablanca that led to the inauguration of an Israeli Office of Interest in Morocco.
Schneller also advised then-prime minister Ehud Barak at the ill-fated 2000 Camp David Summit.
“We need to gradually disengage from the Palestinian population,” he says.
“This will strengthen Israel economically and socioeconomically and bolster its Jewish character. The fewer points of conflict with the Arabs, the more we deal with ourselves, which is healthy.”
Schneller’s conditions for disengaging are that it be done in stages, that new homes for the settlers be built before they are evacuated, and that a referendum be held. He says Sharon failed on all three counts and that was why his disengagement from Gaza was a failure that must not be repeated.
He is unwilling to compromise on Jerusalem and Hebron, which he considers the Jewish people’s heart. He made news when he affixed a mezuza at the controversial Beit Hamachpela (House of the Patriarchs) in Hebron.
When the foreign press asked him if he would leave his own home for a deal with the Palestinians, he said no. But he says that if a referendum passed saying that he would have to leave his home, he would in order to keep the people of Israel united.
“It all comes out of love of Israel,” he says. “The Palestinian conflict will eventually be decided. It is important meanwhile to keep our nation together, which will enable us to keep the maximum of Israel. We unfortunately cannot keep all of it. I am optimistic because Israel is getting more and more united.”
Schneller speaks with reverence about shlemut ha’am, which he translates as “the unified, collective spirit of Israel.” That concept is what has guided him in drafting key legislation about matters of religion and state.
He has passed bills encouraging organ donation and adoption, unchaining agunot (women whose husbands refused them divorces), and bridging the gap between the way sperm banks operate and Jewish law. Schneller’s flagship bill would ease the religious bureaucracy in marriage.
“For me, everything is connected to ‘shlemut ha’am,’” he says. “When I say the ‘Hallel’ prayer on Independence Day, I think of my father who fled from Germany, my grandfather from Baghdad, my grandmother from Fez, Morocco, and other Jews who came here from around the world. Politics are irrelevant for me.”
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