The anti-establishment candidate

Is Ophir Paz-Pines the answer to a dysfunctional party and corrupt government? Absolutely, he insists.

paz pines 298 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
paz pines 298 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Since the Labor leadership race began three months ago, it has barely generated any headlines at all. The May 28 race is looming ever closer, but the press has been busy covering the political scandals and police investigations that have dominated the front pages. The two perceived front-running candidates, former prime minister Ehud Barak and MK Ami Ayalon, have deliberately tried to avoid making news so they can campaign quietly behind the scenes without making any damaging public mistakes. And the incumbent Labor leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, does not want to give any ammunition to critics who say that he spends too much time on ensuring his political future and not enough on ensuring the future security of Israelis. The only candidate in the race who has an interest in making the race as public as possible is the chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, Ophir Paz-Pines. While Barak was in the US and Peretz was examining IDF troops without removing the lens cap from his binoculars, Paz-Pines held a rally for 500 supporters at Labor headquarters. At the rally, Paz-Pines accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of corruption. After quitting Olmert's government four months ago, Paz-Pines is the only Labor candidate not holding his punches against the man who could be Labor's competition in the next election. The other candidates want to be Olmert's defense minister. Paz-Pines wants Labor to stand up for itself and decry the corruption in Olmert's government. In a recent meeting with The Jerusalem Post reporters and editors, Paz-Pines gave a sneak preview into the issues that he hopes will be in the forefront of the campaign once it gets into high gear. Why are you a fitting candidate to be Labor chairman and prime minister? I have been in politics for many years since my youth. I am a product of Labor, but not a prince with a dowry. I came alone with no yichus of a political family. I am not a Bush or a Herzog. But I see politics as an important career that requires hard work and experience. It can't be done by moonlighting. I am very worried about what is going on in Israeli politics. I am worried about how, since the political trauma of the Rabin assassination, Israel politics changed and the quality of leadership has fallen. So have the distinctions between parties: Suddenly, everyone can agree with everyone. There are no solutions or alternatives. [National] politics changed and became like the Union of Local Authorities, where everyone can be in the coalition. The fact that there's no real debate makes Israeli politics less interesting. There is no debate on the issues, just mutual insults that don't bring anyone any solutions, ideas or new thoughts or directions. It's a dangerous deterioration. What is wrong with what Olmert is doing? Olmert hit rock bottom when he said [in holiday interviews in September] that a prime minister did not need an agenda, just the ability to govern. He has not shown an ability to govern. The work plan of the Prime Minister's Office director-general is just about dispensing money, which I don't think is so important. That's abandonment. The policy of privatizing everything that moves is also harming the country. Now we are even privatizing after-school programs in Jerusalem and it's not news. It's unethical for the government to say it has no agenda to parents sending their kids off to war. They aren't giving them a light at the end of the tunnel. Why should Labor be the alternative to the government? The parties have lost their ideology, opportunism reigns and no one expects anyone to keep promises anymore. Israeli society has changed from caring too much to complete apathy. The change has to come from within Israeli politics and I think it should be from Labor. You might say Labor is pass . But only Labor can make the change. Kadima can't do it anymore. Likud is too focused on diplomatic and security issues. The other parties are too small. So only Labor or a new party can do it. I don't think the public will trust a new party again after Kadima. Labor has to change its leadership in an extreme way. The party has to keep its promises across the board. Since the Rabin assassination, we have become addicted to government. We have been in the government at any price. It can't go on this way, because then no one will take us seriously as an alternative because we lost our self-respect. What would be your goals as prime minister? I want Israel to restore its excellence, fight poverty and maintain clean governance. Olmert says he does not have an agenda but he does. Since [former Supreme Court president] Aharon Barak retired, Olmert has tried to fight the Supreme Court and the legal establishment in five ways: 1) Blocking my joining the judicial selection committee, 2) appointing Haim Ramon justice minister, 3) not appointing Meir Sheetrit to the post, 4) [subsequently] appointing Daniel Friedmann, and 5) delaying appointing new judges to the courts. Olmert's goal is to achieve a restrained court that is less independent and where not everything can be judged. But it's vital [that the court fulfill its full role] for the sake of checks and balances. I want a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and normal country. No one adds normal to the list but I think it's important. Didn't Peretz say the same thing about his agenda? I don't think I will implement all of my agenda. But everyone who knows me can tell you that I will at least make an attempt. When I thought I would be fooling myself and the public by remaining in the government, I left. No one can find zigzags in my career. What is your diplomatic vision? Israel living in peace with its neighbors and the Arab world. This is possible. I don't agree that it's not possible. I want Israel to be at peace with the Arab world that could help against the Iranian threat. We are hearing new and different voices from Jordan, Egypt and the Saudis. The most important diplomatic issue is Iran. The threat must be taken into account but so must the opportunity it creates. The threats are clear. It is intolerable for Israel and the world for nuclear weapons to be in terrorist, fundamentalist hands. The way to handle it is internationally with Europe and the US leading the way. Many of our neighbors feel just as threatened as Israel does: the Gulf States, Saudis, Egypt, Jordan. We need to try the regional element. I was in Madrid for the recent [Madrid 15+] summit with Arab countries. I heard things from them we never heard before about the 22 countries sincerely wanting to make peace with us. The basis has to be the Saudi plan. On the Palestinian issue, a breakthrough cannot be reached with the current leadership. No one deludes himself to think a deal can be reached between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The path should be regional, not bilateral. Let's say Abbas decided he would give up the Palestinian right of return. Could we really continue then to issues like Jerusalem? With a regional basis, we can get there. But the Saudi initiative calls for returning to pre-1967 borders. In principle, we will have to return to pre-1967 lines except where it's not practical like Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, etc. But for 90% of the West Bank, I think a deal can be reached. The polls don't give you much of a chance to win the Labor race. Without faith, nothing happens. The polls saying I won't win doesn't mean I won't. Three and a half months is a lot of time. What sort of changes would you implement? I recommended that the person who is chairman of Labor not be defense minister. There are a lot of changes that need to be made in both the party and the Defense Ministry. If someone tries to do both, they won't do either. Labor has to change for real and go through a process and that can't be done by a defense minister who only has time to deal with the party in the middle of the night. We have to go back to the future. But doesn't the public want a security man to lead after Olmert and Peretz? Labor will certainly be able to offer the best choice of defense minister - Barak or Ayalon. But Israel needs more than that. It needs a leader with vision who will restore the public's faith in politics. I think I can do that better than the others. I present a team of collective leaders that will divide the work. We have a great team but they tried to divide and conquer. Peretz should be a part of it. Our inability to work together, and the mismanagement by Peretz, are problems. When it comes to ministerial appointments, we have consistently put people in the wrong place where they can't focus on their strengths and that has made people frustrated. If we use people the right way, we will work well. We promised a leadership team in the general election, and we didn't keep the promise. Do you ever consider quitting politics? I play the political game with my soul. I put in my all. It's exhausting. Sometimes you look outside and think it must be fun. But then again, I don't know because I never tried anything else.