'Equal religious rights for Conservative, Reform'

New opposition leader talks about her pet topic – social democratic economics – Iran,the 'Tal Law' and the opposition.

Shelly Yacimovich (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shelly Yacimovich
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ahead of Shavuot, the holiday most identified with conversion due to the story of Ruth, opposition and Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich has a message of hope for those whose conversions – and other important Jewish ceremonies – are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
Only minutes after voting in favor of a bill that would allow civil marriages and divorces for those who prefer not to or are not allowed to be wed by the rabbinate, which was voted down, Yacimovich, 52, said Israeli citizens should be given all options.
“I am in favor of opening the widest possible range of alternatives that fit people in Israel and the wider world,” she explained, “whether that is Conservative or Reform marriages, civil marriages, same-sex marriages.
“Minorities that are small in Israel, but larger in the rest of the world, need to be entirely equal on every ritual in the life cycle, from birth to burial,” Yacimovich added.
Well known for her socioeconomic agenda, which catapulted her to fame as a radio and television reporter, and contributed to her meteoric rise from MK to Labor chairwoman to opposition leader in six years, speaking to The Jerusalem Post last week, Yacimovich expounded on topics on which her opinion is less known.
The entrance hall to her office – one of the biggest and fanciest in the Knesset – is cluttered with unpacked boxes and computers yet to find a home. Yacimovich is still settling in, and her new office is mostly empty.
The Labor Party leader, dressed in her monochromatic uniform of black button-down blouse and tailored pants, preferred to talk around a glass coffee table, rather than sitting at her new desk. Admittedly uncomfortable talking with the print media, though she is a former journalist, Yacimovich often shifted in her seat, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees when she wanted to emphasize a point.
She even asked Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem to make sure the books behind her desk were not in pictures, because they are not hers. (There was, however, a box of gummy candies at hand.) After all, Yacimovich entered the place suddenly, unexpectedly, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz announced that they were forming the largest peacetime coalition in Israel’s history earlier this month, catapulting her to head of the largest opposition party.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal?
When I heard it, I didn’t believe it. It was so unrealistic! It was the total opposite of what Mofaz had said that very morning – that I was negotiating with Netanyahu, which he knew was a lie. He said he would be the leader of the summer protests and called the prime minister a liar, which I would never do, on principle.
Does an unusually large coalition harm democracy?
A coalition of 94 is clearly undemocratic and rare in the world. Democracy is based on debate between different approaches that struggle with each other. There is such a huge majority that it looks like an enormous mammoth that tramples everything.
They are even taking over traditional strongholds of the opposition [referring to MK Uri Ariel (National Union) leading the Knesset State Control Committee, though he shares rightwing opinions with much of the coalition].
Labor is ready for a public fight. We discussed it with our legal adviser, and we will go to an external court, as well as a committee of coalition and opposition parties. It is a serious parliamentary battle, but in the end, the real battle happens in the opposition. It was a mistake for Labor to give up on seats in the State Control Committee [at the beginning of the 18th Knesset]. It is unacceptable that there will be no debate on the committee.
How can an opposition of only 26 MKs be effective and promote its agenda?
Leading the opposition presents a rare opportunity to establish our socioeconomic agenda. There is a new political public situation, in which it is clearer now that Labor, under me, is the one and only alternative to Netanyahu. There is no other party on the political map that even has the legitimacy to present itself as such.
There will be a lot of economic drama; the 2013 budget will be cruel with severe cuts.
The basis of this argument and the difference in ideology between capitalism and social democracy will allow us to deepen our support even more.
The first issue this coalition has promised to deal with is a replacement for the “Tal Law.” What is your take on ultra- Orthodox enlistment?
Labor’s agenda is humanist, liberal and free, with deep respect for Jewish values. On the Tal Law, we have our own approach – we call it the Ben-Gurion Outline. It maintains the custom of Torato Umanuto [Torah is his occupation], but in proportions similar to what David Ben-Gurion decided. [Ben-Gurion allowed 400 full-time yeshiva students to be exempt from military service, which would bring us to about 4,000 in proportion to modern Israel. There are currently 60,000.] I know it’s trendy to talk about this subject, but drafting yeshiva students is not what will determine Israeli society’s fate.
What matters more is bringing the haredi population into the workforce. More and more of them want to make money for their families.
The role of leadership is not to deepen divides but to find compromise. We don’t need to condition their increased contribution to the workforce [on army service].
What about Israeli Arabs?
Labor agrees with civilian service. I saw it in the Arab sector in Taiba. It exists and it has to be expanded, but it must be done with dialogue and not by force.
The Plesner committee [to replace the Tal Law] won’t have any significance without including the haredim. No one believes the IDF police will go to the homes of the haredim and draft them by force.
Can this government do it?
Labor, which historically never saw the haredim as an enemy, and I because I have always had good relations with the haredim, can. This government? In the end there will be a compromise. I think all the factions should be on the committee without regard to coalition or opposition. That’s the healthiest and most right thing to do.
This is not an issue of coalition or opposition.
It has to be a decision of the entire country. Including the haredim in the IDF does not have to be a political issue.
How do you think Israel should act in relation to Iran?
Sanctions have not been exhausted – we are only at the beginning of utilizing them.
Iran’s exports reach $100 billion a year, and sanctions will severely harm its economy. All these things have not been done yet.
It’s obvious and we don’t have to repeat that all options are on the table, but the military option in my opinion should be the last one. I’m not convinced, to say the least, that this is the current government’s policy.
First, we should exhaust all the economic international options with full cooperation with the US and with the powers. Israel cannot turn the Iranian nuclear issue into one that is only our responsibility; we need to be part of a world coalition. I am using all of the influence I have so that my understanding on Iran will be the dominant one.
There is too much chatter [on Iran]. It has crossed every line! [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak was the one who came out with declarations and criticized the chatter about Iran.
I suggest he listen to his own advice.
What’s your stance on talks with the Palestinians?
I pursue peace in my outlook. I am part of the moderate, pragmatic, Zionist camp, in favor of territorial compromise. The outline I and Labor accept is the Clinton Plan, which means a return to ’67 lines, while preserving settlement blocs and making territorial exchanges.
Most of the political map has converged on that, including Kadima, that no longer really exists, and the fringes of Likud.
There is a tendency among politicians to speak a lot about diplomatic plans. There are many good diplomatic plans but what really matters is leadership.
I have trouble taking [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert’s plan seriously because it was one he presented when he was on the way out. It has less significance. Olmert had three years as prime minister, a comfortable coalition for diplomatic progress, with legitimacy in the world and Labor on his side; yet there was no breakthrough. The opposite happened – there were two wars.
Do you think the upcoming US presidential election will influence the future of negotiations?
I have no interest in dealing with the US election, but I can assume that if Obama wins he will have more interest in being dominant in advancing a diplomatic plan. If Mitt Romney wins, he will probably go more toward Netanyahu’s path. Then again, we could end up being surprised.
What does the rise of Francois Hollande – someone with an agenda similar to yours – as France’s prime minister mean for Israel?
We are living in such a global world that political movements cross continents. The victory of Hollande over [former French prime minister Nicolas] Sarkozy is very symbolic.
It shows that an important change is taking place in the world. The public is sick of swinish capitalism, wide gaps between rich and poor, and having a caste of monarchs that control the wealth. That’s true in France and also true in Israel – that’s why Labor and I are getting stronger.
You are best known for your socioeconomic agenda. How do you think that will be received internationally, where Israel is generally discussed in terms of war and peace?
In most of my meetings with world leaders they are interested to hear that in Israel there are also socioeconomic issues. The topics that interest Israel interest the entire world.
They also want to know the right system for governments to use in dealing with the international socioeconomic crisis.
My agenda on socioeconomic [issues] is connected to the diplomatic issue. Because for years the Left dealt only with diplomatic issues and the Palestinians, it lost the support of the Israeli public. It thought the government wasn’t doing enough for them. Since we are in an endless conflict, the country’s agenda was all on diplomatic and security issues.
Lacking a socioeconomic agenda like the rest of the world harmed Israeli society.
Without fixing poverty, there won’t be flowers of peace. A diplomatic breakthrough will come from a healthy society and solidarity, not from a society that is polarized between poverty and wealth. It’s unreasonable to talk about borders without dealing with what’s inside those borders.
Now, there is hope it will be different. This is the path that I am leading. Being a candidate for prime minister and leader of the opposition means I am widening my spectrum.
My social democratic agenda is a bridge to connections around the world, and even in the Middle East.