New voice in the Knesset

Ofer Shelah, the man behind several of Yesh Atid’s key policy formulations, calls for real solutions to real problems

Ofer Shelah521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Ofer Shelah521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
In his maiden Knesset speech, outspoken journalist-turned-politician Ofer Shelah slammed what he called “the politics of fear.” Quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the neophyte Yesh Atid Knesset Member accused old-style politicians (like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) of playing on public fears to win votes and justify a hawkish reliance on force rather than diplomacy.
“I think fear is ingrained in Israeli consciousness,” Shelah tells The Jerusalem Report. “It starts from the way Israeli children learn history at school. There is the sense of victimhood they learn from the Shoah; and from the neutral way modern Israeli history is taught, they learn to shy away from controversy and debate.”
This, in Shelah’s view, creates a vicious circle. Fear and mistrust of the other instilled in the schools, manipulated and magnified by the politicians, perpetuates a pusillanimous paralysis in strategic decision-making.
“People in government need to face up to real problems and present real solutions, and you can only do that if you leave fear behind,” he asserts.
As a prime example of the manipulative fear-mongering old politics at its worst, Shelah points to a series of briefings on the Iranian nuclear threat he attended last summer as a journalist. He claims Netanyahu deliberately created the false impression that if Israel did not attack within months at the most “all would be lost.” Exaggerating the urgency of the situation may have helped raise international awareness, he says, but the degree of psychological manipulation of the Israeli people went far beyond that, ostensibly trying to rally them around the lowest common denominator – fear and survival – for party political gain. “There was no need to stir up a debate in the media in such apocalyptic terms, unless it was for domestic political purposes,” he insists.
The bald, wiry Shelah, 53, is a close friend of Yesh Atid leader, fellow journalist and TV personality Yair Lapid. Easygoing, informal, with a lively sense of humor, he bears the scars of a roadside bombing in southern Lebanon in which he lost an eye.
Placed 6th on the Yesh Atid list, he is now the 19-member faction’s chair. On his desk in the Knesset he keeps a gavel that once belonged to Lapid’s late father, Tommy, also a journalist-turned-politician.
Highly articulate, Shelah, the man behind several of Yesh Atid’s key policy formulations, is one of the more intriguing new voices in Israeli politics today. He is part of a new generation of leaders that includes Lapid and Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, all ex-journalists, all born within a few years of each other and all, in their different ways, insisting on politics in a new key.
Echoing the spirit of the mass social protest of the summer of 2011, they demand a new, more transparent and honest social contract between the government and the people, and, even more importantly, a leadership that has the courage to define and tackle the big strategic issues of the day.
For Shelah, one of the big issues is reaching agreement with the Palestinians and ending the almost five-decades long occupation.
In his view, Israelis and Palestinians “both immersed in their own victimhood” will not be able to get there on their own. What is needed, he says, is a dramatic widening of the negotiating framework, bringing in as many relevant regional and international players as possible. This would not only help kick-start the process, but help fashion an agreement both sides feel more comfortable with.
To bring in more regional players, Israel should be ready to accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for parallel talks.
And it should also be ready to include more international players, besides the Americans.
“Israelis need to feel that any agreement they make is an agreement with the entire Arab world. Palestinians need to feel that the international community stands behind the commitments Israel makes, so that any interim agreement does not become permanent, leaving them high and dry,” he argues.
Shelah framed the Yesh Atid position on another key strategic issue, Haredi (ultra- Orthodox) army service. His draft, which became the basis for the new legislation now being hammered out by a government committee under Yesh Atid Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Perry, is based on two main principles: Cutting the Gordian knot between Haredim not serving in the army and not working, an anomaly the Israeli economy will not be able to sustain for much longer; and creating a common civic identity, under which all sectors of Israeli society take part in national service and in work, while preserving their different communal cultures and customs. The proposed solution, to be phased in over a five-year period, entails the following: • Only 1,800 specially gifted yeshiva students will be exempted at age 18 each year and state-funded till age 26.
• All the other Haredi 18 year-olds, around 6,000-7,000 each year, will be called up for military or civil service, depending on IDF needs • In parallel, a system of vocational training and placement will be put in place to cater for Haredi job needs • At age 22, all Haredim, whether or not they have served, will be given a choice of staying in or returning to yeshivot, where they will not be funded, or opting for vocational training and work.
Shelah, who could conceivably become defense minister one day, if Yesh Atid continues its meteoric rise, also has a plan for reforming the IDF. In his 2003 book, “The Tray and the Silver,” he argues that Israel needs to find a new model somewhere between today’s “people’s army” and a professional army. The new model would retain the universal conscription of the “people’s army,” but introduce longer professional training for some of the recruits, who would be reimbursed accordingly.
“In today’s world, in which Israel no longer faces large tank-based field armies and needs more high-tech based forces, you need to strike a balance between fewer hightech trained soldiers serving more time, and more regular soldiers serving less time,” he explains. “In other words, there needs to be a differential service. And once we have as many people serving as possible, including the Haredim, we will be able to create that differential service and reward those who serve longer financially.”
How far Shelah goes in politics could depend on Yesh Atid’s durability. So many centrist parties in Israel have scored brilliant initial successes, only to implode and fade away. The most recent case was Kadima, which crashed from 28 seats in 2009 to only 2 in this year’s election. Shelah, however, argues that Kadima and Yesh Atid are two very different stories. “Kadima,” he says, “was formed top down by a prime minister who basically tore up parts of two parties, Likud and Labor, and created what was by definition a ruling party. And, as soon as it lost power, it crumbled.
But Yesh Atid’s success reflects the notion that something very profound is changing in Israeli society. In other words, if Kadima reflected the “big bang in Israeli politics,” Shelah suggests that Yesh Atid reflects a big bang in Israeli society, which is likely to prove more profound and enduring.
Shelah was born in 1960 in Kiryat Bialik north of Haifa. As an officer in the paratroops during the First Lebanon War in 1982, he led an anti-tank ambush in which then state-of-the-art Soviet T-72 tanks were destroyed by American weapons for the first time. It was a year later, as a captain in the reserves, that he lost an eye in a blast from an explosive device. After studying economics and literature in Tel Aviv, he earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in literature and creative writing from New York University in 1988. It was there that he began his journalistic career, reporting on American sport for the Israeli daily Maariv while studying.
Back in Israel, he became a leading basketball commentator, while at the same time writing a column on military affairs and politics. From 2006 he gained increasing celebrity status on TV, broadcasting Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Euroleague basketball games, serving as a military analyst and co-hosting investigative news magazine programs. He also presented Yanshufim, a program exploring Israel’s fascination with American culture and its wannabe America aspirations by interviewing prominent Israelis on American icons, for example Yair Lapid on Mohammed Ali and Tzipi Livni on Hillary Clinton. “Israelis,” says Shelah, “are wannabe Americans without their naivete, but wanting to emulate their feelings of being strong, free and capable of self-improvement and self-salvation.”
Steeped in Americana, Shelah wrote and edited the CD that became the official memento for the 75th anniversary of the American National Football League, the NFL, in 1994. Incredibly, the text narrated by the late Pat Summerall in a studio in Dallas was written by an Israeli; and the disc presented in New York by thencommissioner Paul Tagliabue was Fedexed the day before from Tel Aviv.
Despite his heavy journalistic schedule, Shelah also found time to write seven books on subjects ranging from basketball, cinema, war experiences, military affairs and political leadership to a reader’s guide to James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” written with his late father Hezi, also a Renaissance man – colonel in the paratroopers, classical music critic, patron of the arts and CEO of several large corporations. “I first read ‘Ulysses’ when I got out of the army in the 1980s,” Shelah recalls. “About 20 years later my father did the same thing. But, unlike me, my father was a very organized person. He started summarizing everything he read, including the guides in English. And from there, the idea of accumulating all those notes into a book you can read together with Ulysses emerged.”
A veteran long-distance runner, Shelah has run 18 full marathons on four continents.
His longest race was the 89-kilometer Comrades Ultra-marathon in South Africa, the 2010 “down-run” from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, which took him eight and a half hours. The “down-run” is particularly hard on the joints and Shelah says he could hardly walk for three months afterwards. Yet despite “unthinkable levels of pain” he says he never thought of quitting. “It’s not that I didn’t want it to end, but it’s a case of the mindbody dichotomy reaching a point where the more pain the body feels, the more elation the mind feels. I would really like to do it again -- but the [easier] ‘up-run’ next time.”
Running, says Shelah, “is about the way you live life. It’s accepting pain as an integral part of life, embracing it, yet remembering it’s still pain, and seeing everything on the same plateau, the pain and the elation.”
In the same way, in Shelah’s view, Israel’s political leadership should be ready for the long haul, recognizing its strength, ready to go through pain to achieve its objectives and setting distant goals. “In recognizing our power, I don’t mean to minimize the threats we face. They are real and they are existential.
But we are powerful and that creates a moral obligation,” he says. What that boils down to is a leadership confident enough to take risks for peace and to tackle vexing national identity questions that have been avoided for decades. “The leadership should be pointing to goals, what US president Ronald Reagan used to call the ‘shining city on a hill.’ It’s a city of peace and prosperity and with good leadership we can get there,” he insists.
Shelah is a prime example of a new generation in the Knesset, teeming with ideas, full of energy and, if he is anything to go by, not lacking stamina. But will they be able to overcome the obstacles of the old politics, not to mention the inherent difficulties of the Israeli predicament? And will they remain a cohesive political force if and when the going gets tough? Their race has just begun. 