How Izhar Shay got Blue and White to step up political, pandemic influence

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: "I actually am optimistic."

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Minister Izhar Shay, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the background, holds an agreement on scientific cooperation with his UAE counterpart on Tuesday, at a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport held in honor of the first Emirati government delegation to Israel.  One the lef (photo credit: ELAD MALKA)
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Minister Izhar Shay, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the background, holds an agreement on scientific cooperation with his UAE counterpart on Tuesday, at a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport held in honor of the first Emirati government delegation to Israel. One the lef
(photo credit: ELAD MALKA)
When Izhar Shay left the comfort of his successful hi-tech career and entered politics, he did not realize he would go through three grueling elections before getting to govern.
But he has learned fast on the job and emerged as Blue and White’s most influential minister on both politics and the pandemic. He brings innovative ideas as the party’s representative in the coronavirus cabinet, and has been instrumental in pushing Benny Gantz to stand up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In an interview conducted on Zoom, the science and technology minister looks to the future of the Blue and White Party and the blue and white country.
Wednesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting once again broke apart with no decisions, and the reports coming out of it were reminiscent of the first wave, where everyone is trying to work the system, to make decisions ridden with populism. Do you think this cabinet can manage a sound exit strategy?
I actually am optimistic. We had a good, professional cabinet session Wednesday in which, over many hours of discussions, we went through scientific data and findings. We tried to figure out the right way to move forward based on decisions made over the last few weeks. We decided that going out of this second lockdown would be based on objective parameters and by a strategy that sets those parameters in front of everything else. Any decision that will be made on easing lockdown restrictions will be based on achievements. Those achievements will be measured based on parameters, not by dates, so there will be some level of objectivity in the decision-making.
But there are still significant discussions on what exactly happens between the phases. We put together a nine-stage strategy, in which we go from one phase to another based on those parameters. What exactly is included in those phases has not been fully decided yet, because of what I considered legitimate discussions. There is a balance in each phase between the pandemic-related possible implications of easing restrictions and the social and economic benefits and costs of those restrictions.
For example, we eased restrictions on businesses that do not deal with the public directly. That was a major decision that we believe enabled one million people to leave their homes this week. We made it, along with easing the restrictions on going to neighbors’ houses and going beyond 1,000 meters from home. Now we have to wait 10 days to understand what will happen, because that is how this pandemic works. That takes us to the end of next week, after which we can consider easing more lockdown restrictions. What happens after that is a matter for discussion. It is important for the public to understand that this is how we consider pros and cons for any of the phases.
You threatened to quit because the government was making unhealthy decisions. But you were talked into staying on by Benny Gantz. Has anything actually changed since then? Do you regret staying on?
I’m happy that I stayed. The way that Gantz convinced me was asking me how many people I would help get back to work if I left the government now? How many people would I help with the pandemic? How many sick people would I help get back to normal life, by quitting? Once I realized that we have to be there to influence decision-making processes, I accepted Benny Gantz’s arguments as to why we need to stay. Ever since then, I’m happy to report that we have had significant influence – for instance, on the exit strategy that was put forward. I am happy that our exit strategy is governed by science and not by dates or by politics. This was a sign I made the right decision by staying and having influence from within and not from outside.
What has happened to Benny Gantz since you threatened to quit? Is it you who made him suddenly act stronger and tougher?
I don’t think I have that kind of influence on anybody, not even at home. I think this is why we exist as a party. We tried to play the game and to be nice. We found that our partners in this government give priority to political considerations above what we consider the interests of Israeli citizens. Reality checked in, maybe a little bit too late, but still in time for us to realize that we can have influence in different ways. We still want to do the right thing for the State of Israel and for its citizens.
For us, this is not just a phrase. It is the whole existence of the Blue and White Party, that we put the Israeli interests in front of everything else. We are pushing our agenda, which we believe is the right agenda. We want there to be a budget by the end of the year for next year. We want to make sure the democratic issues are protected. If that means that we need to be a little bit tougher, so be it.
What do you expect will happen now that Blue and White’s demands are being rejected by Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz and the Likud?
I don’t know if they are being rejected. They are objecting to them.
We will continue to insist that the government should be run the right way, that there will be government meetings in which decisions are made that advance in the parliament, that there will be intensive government planning for next year to revive the economy and provide sustainable means for businesses in Israel to survive the pandemic. We are insisting on this, and we made clear to the other side that there would be no compromise. We are not going to let cynical political interests interfere with what has to be done.
A week ago, Benny Gantz said he would give Netanyahu two weeks. Do you see yourself leaving the government next week?
No. Gantz said that if by next week we don’t see progress in processing the budget for 2021, that means there will not be enough time to process it through the parliament for approval by the end of the year. We will know by the end of next week if Netanyahu and the Likud are not going to do what is right and not let it go through. If that happens, we do have a number of options, all of which can be acted upon. Elections are only one of the options. But the result would be that Netanyahu would not remain the prime minister of the Israel government.
Speaking of demands: Many of the ministers are pushing to merge stages of the exit strategy, against the Health Ministry’s recommendations. What are your thoughts on that?
This is a formal recommendation of the Blue and White Party that I recommended. We believe that going from nine phases to five phases is reasonable, considering the implications of the pandemic. We thought that merging some of the phases together would make it easier to manage the process, more transparent and easier to make the public understand, which is a key to implement this strategy.
The time frame between the phases could become longer, due to the larger number of restrictions included in each phase. We all agreed that there would be at least two weeks between phases.
It was received well, including by the Health Ministry representatives at the cabinet meeting. 
If we moved from a nine-stage to a five-stage plan, what would be included in the next two phases?
The next stage is opening shopping malls, inside and outside, according to the purple standard, as well as opening bed and breakfasts, alternative medical treatments, hairdressers. The next phase after that we suggested would be restaurants and cafés. Then there would be sports events, cultural gatherings and venues. I think there’s a lot to be hope for.
You have said that synagogues should open – that if 10 people can gather inside, then people should be allowed to gather and pray. You seem very fair. But this isn’t a political atmosphere where nice guys win. Why try?
There are political decisions made by politicians based on what they think is best for the country. I think not opening synagogues after the first lockdown was a mistake. We opened cultural events, we opened venues for professional events. We let people work indoors in closed areas, but we did not allow synagogues to operate normally, which was total nonsense. I don’t know why we did it. 
I think synagogues should be allowed to open next week, if we are allowing hi-tech companies to work in closed areas. If we let people work inside, we should let people pray.
I am not doing this to win votes in Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim. I am doing this because it is the right thing to do, and that makes it easier. I hope this pandemic leads to dialogue among the different sectors of Israeli society. 
Is Netanyahu managing the coronavirus crisis or his political career?
It’s interesting. I see Netanyahu sometimes managing the crisis in a very professional way. Wednesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting was such an example. He let the scientists and everyone who participated offer their opinions. He managed a professional meeting and I expect the outcome will be professional. 
But sometimes I have seen him behave differently. My frustration three weeks ago when going into the lockdown was that I saw the process was totally broken. There was a very different Mr. Netanyahu. We spent three days wasting time on frustrating debates on political demonstrations. We spent hours and hours discussing that uselessly. That was a totally different Mr. Netanyahu, and I only hope the citizens of Israel see the Mr. Netanyahu who insists on dealing with the pandemic professionally. I know he can do this. 
Have you reached the point other politicians have where getting Netanyahu out of his job has become the top priority, even if it means sacrificing your own political career and your party?
Getting Netanyahu out of his [job] is not an ideal for me. That is not why I came to politics. I came to politics two years ago because I want to do something for my children and for the next generation.
In a democratic system, you have to remove the incumbent, in order to implement your vision. It is a means to an end. We tried to replace Netanyahu with Gantz in three tough, expensive and intense campaigns, and we did not succeed, so we decided to join forces.
We in Blue and White are nowhere near done. We have a plan for Israel in 2048. I imagine that during those 28 years until then, someone other than Netanyahu will be prime minister. I hope the next prime minister will be Benny Gantz.
How likely is it that there will be a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office in a year, as the coalition agreement says?
I was more optimistic when we signed the coalition agreement. There is still a chance, but it is a much smaller chance.
We are determined to set the agenda for what will happen in Israel over the next few months. If someone on the other side took our goodwill and our sacrifices for what we thought the right thing would be for Israeli citizens as naivete or misunderstanding or weakness, that was a big mistake.
We have a written agreement with Netanyahu and the Likud, and they have to comply with it. If they deviate from the agreement, we will set the agenda, and we would make sure Netanyahu would not remain prime minister.
How would you rate your experience in government? Do you regret leaving your easy life in hi-tech for this mess?
It was a tough decision but I don't regret it. I’ve learned a lot. I'm still trying to improve my political professional capabilities. I'm very committed to doing my best for the people who voted for me. I know that there are those who are disappointed in Blue and White’s decisions, including some who are disappointed with me personally. I know I still have to prove a lot to the people who put their confidence in me. I'm still very committed, and I still have many years in front of me. I'm definitely committed to doing my best and bringing my vision to reality. What I want to do is create job opportunities for the people in the periphery and leverage the economy of innovation in the start-up nation that we have created in order to create social equality and opportunities for everyone. This is my personal mission statement, and it has not been fully accomplished yet.