Finding a common ground

Margalit is a left-wing radical, Peleg is closely involved with property in east Jerusalem.

margalit pelg 248 88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
margalit pelg 248 88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
City council members have many things in common. One of them is that unless they are designated deputies to the mayor, they work for free and can barely even obtain a refund for the parking hours during committee meetings. They have offices, assistants and, until the last elections, an eagerness to share their work with the local press, which was the only way to let their constituency know what they were doing for them at Kikar Safra. The mayor's decision to open almost all committee debates to the public and the fact that this city council has only a one-man opposition have introduced some changes in the usual relationship between the councillors and the press, but this coalition still includes a few members who are far from being silent and submissive. On top of this, Jerusalem being the capital and the center of international attention, city councillors who are very politically involved find themselves in the spotlight, which is perhaps ample compensation for their unpaid work. This is what happened recently with two of them, Elisha Peleg from Likud and Meir Margalit from Meretz. The two have a lot in common but are radically opposed in their political views. Peleg is close to and very involved with the different Jewish associations that buy houses and properties in east Jerusalem in order to install more Jewish families there. Margalit, on the other hand, is a left-wing radical, field coordinator for ICAHD, an organization that tries to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem that have been ruled illegal by Israeli authorities. But politics aside, Peleg and Margalit share common biographies. Both have already served as city councillors, had to quit for personal reasons, and made their comeback in the last elections. They are about the same age (Peleg is 53, Margalit is 55), both are divorced, and both are profoundly attached to the city. Whenever issues at stake are not political, it is not unusual to find the two working together to promote some project or decision of the municipality, mostly on social issues. Both agreed that in order to represent their constituency better, they wouldn't hesitate to go to jail. In Jerusalem brought the two together for a frank discussion about Jerusalem, politics and the meaning of life. The meeting took place in Peleg's office, located one floor above Margalit's, at Kikar Safra. By the end of the meeting the two discovered that they had one more thing in common: they were both wounded during the Yom Kippur War. Once this was discovered, the two launched into a long and very typical Israeli conversation, focused on names and numbers of units, battles and army reminiscences. This led us all to the conclusion that once you're an Israeli, even the most radical opponents can always find common ground - the army. But that is as far as it goes. Both men's opinions were shaped by that war, but in completely different directions. After months in hospital with wounds suffered during the war Margalit, who grew up in the revisionist Betar movement, came to the realization that the war, any war, was futile. He recalls that from then on, he had decided to fight only for one purpose: peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Peleg, however, sees Margalit as a "moysser," someone who hands over Jewish lands. Peleg: You can't hold the stick from both ends [he says of Margalit]. "You can't be a member of the administration of this municipality and at the same time declare publicly that your aim is to work against its policy. It just doesn't work that way. Yes, that's what you have declared recently to the press, that you are building illegal constructions that the municipality has legally destroyed. What you're doing is called "moysser" because you help those bashing Israel in the world. Margalit: I wasn't born into this coalition, and I'm not desperately holding on to it. I even presented my resignation letter to the mayor a few weeks ago. Peleg: I never heard about it. It surprises me. It didn't even reach the press, though you're so good with the press. Weren't you going to let us city council members know about it? Margalit: No, why should I? I sent my letter to the mayor, who invited me to his office as a result, and asked me to remain in the coalition. He heard all my complaints and reasons, and his answer was: 'Give me an opportunity; I'll show you that I can do something about it.' Peleg: That's strange. How come that on this matter you all of a sudden listen to the mayor? Margalit: True. On this specific matter, I came to the conclusion that it was appropriate to accept his offer. So you see, I'm not hanging on to the bonuses I have as a city council member - I am ready to give up the Volvo and the huge salary. For the moment, I really don't see what big advantages I have from being in the coalition, so I really won't miss it too much if I finally resign. But listen, this mayor knew it before I joined his coalition. He knew who I am, he was aware of my positions and what I believe in and work for. And despite all this, he invited me to join his coalition. Peleg: I have no problems with your beliefs or with your public activities or with your political credo. Believe me, I know how to respect people even when their political views differ so much from mine. And the fact is, that it doesn't prevent me from being your friend, from standing at your side in sad moments, exactly as I know that you have stood and will stand by me in sad moments. I know how to draw a line between the human-private relationship and the public aspects. But I say that it's immoral for you to go to the mayor and ask him to convince you to stay in his coalition. If you object to this administration's policy, and you do so openly and even feel proud of it, I believe that your place is in the opposition. IJ: Mr. Peleg, you too have more than once criticized some of the mayor's decisions. What is the difference? You are also part of the coalition. Peleg: There's no reason not to express criticism. It's totally legitimate. But there are still some rules: I presented Mayor Barkat this week with a list of 15 issues on which I think he is mistaken - 15 issues! But I did it as part of a working meeting with the mayor. I submitted the list to him and asked him to take my remarks into consideration - that's one of the rules. Once he did that, I received his OK to raise some of these issues in an open debate in front of the coalition. I plan to ask him to allow me to raise some issues to another open debate at the city council meeting, some others even to the state comptroller - these are the rules. Meir [Margalit] is not acting by the rules. You can't be a member of the coalition and the board and act as if you're a member of the opposition, free from any considerations. These are the rules, and this is the law. Margalit: Let's not forget that Elisha is an attorney. But by the way, I heard that you resigned from your position as city attorney in Beersheba, so how do you make a living now? Peleg: I don't. I have joined the statistics of job seekers. IJ: Could it be that you just have a different definition of what it means to be an elected official? Elisha says if you don't agree with the mayor, sit with him and try to convince him, but don't oppose him publicly. Peleg: Right. And don't bring a stack of stones in front of his office. Margalit: My approach is much more anarchistic. I truly believe that I am allowed - I would even say it was my duty - to do anything that I deem necessary to represent the public who voted for me. If I come to the conclusion that in order to serve the best interests of that public I should be a part of the coalition and at the same time criticize it from outside, I will do it without any hesitation. It's not that I want to be part of the board because it looks good on my resumé. In my eyes, it is only to serve those who voted for me in the best possible way. I say that it is my right and my duty to use any means available to serve my constituency. Rules of the game? Well, these are not my rules, period. I play by different rules. Of course, there are quite a few rules that we both respect. For example, you will never find me using violence or rude words; but anything legitimate, including illegal construction which, allow me to remind you, is a legitimate way in a democracy, as an action of civil disobedience, well, I believe that I have the right to act that way. This is my way to compensate the people who elected me and sent me to the city council, who are such an underprivileged and discriminated society. The situation of these people is so hard, so extremely underprivileged, that I believe that I have the right to use the most extreme ways to give them support. Peleg: I agree that Meir is an anarchist because he puts himself above the law. And through his action, he is dragging us to total anarchy because, after all, he is an elected official and, as such, he serves as a model and a symbol for others. People watch him and do as he does. And when he goes to rebuild illegal constructions that have been demolished in accordance with the law, and when he builds or rebuilds these houses, without licenses, as requested by the law (according to the local planning and constructing committee), you put yourself above the law. By using moral and social reasons taken from some ideas about a righteous world and society, putting your own morality above all, you put yourself above all the laws. In my view, if Israel was a really lawful state, you should have been put on trial long ago for illegal constructing. Meir, you are openly breaking the law, and it's just because the city attorney has such a special attitude toward people from Meretz, and I say that loud and clear, he looks seriously into any petty complaint they present him. He doesn't care about the huge illegal constructions made openly by Arab residents, despite all the letters he receives about that. No, he won't stop them. So I say that some of the rules of the game here in this municipality are not so clear to all. I am asked to act according to the laws, and you, my friend, the anarchist, act as if these laws do not concern you. Margalit: And I'm telling you, Elisha, that not only is it true, but this is the way I understand my duty, my mission. If I sincerely believe that a law is creating more discrimination, it is my duty not to obey because my primary duty is to represent the discriminated constituency who elected me. And let me remind you, that's exactly what we did along the years in our history, as Jews. What is Zionism about if not breaking discriminating laws? What did we do when the British forbade entrance to the country to Jews who were fleeing from the Nazis? Didn't we break the law because it was discriminating? And today, I believe that this law - demolishing houses built illegally by Arab residents - is discriminatory, and I would add it is a shame on us Jews from a moral point of view. Peleg: The British who wouldn't let in Jews fleeing from Nazi Europe were doing something wrong. It was an illegal law, and that's why we had to break it because it was illegal to prevent Jews from entering the country. Margalit: This is exactly what I'm saying. There was a law, and it was an illegal law that had to be broken. Peleg: Yes, but this doesn't apply to the Palestinians, residents of east Jerusalem. Because these people obtain rightfully and lawfully all their rights: national insurance, schooling, health care, and thus they have to obey the law and to refrain from building without permits. They should not break the law, and I expect from a city council member not to join them in breaking the law and acting against the rules of the municipality. Margalit: We're having a very interesting philosophical debate here. In fact, we're talking here about the limits of obedience. The question is until where do we have to obey the law? Peleg: Let's take it to court. Margalit: I'm saying that as far as east Jerusalem is concerned, there is a black flag waving over Israeli laws. Peleg: It's a lie. But listen. As your friend - yes, as your friend - allow me to tell you: beware of your words. Think again. Because if what you just said now is published, I'm telling you, this is incitement to break the law. You're causing yourself harm. I'm telling you this as a lawyer and as a friend. Margalit: Elisha, I thank you as a friend, but I am not hiding myself, you know that. This is my way, this is what I believe in, that's the way I have always acted. Peleg: Believe me, when you're arrested and in prison, all those that you fight for won't come to visit you. But I will come, trust me. IJ: With all due respect to the east Jerusalem issues, let's talk about the problems facing residents in this part of the city. Let's see where you two stand. Peleg: Meir, tell me about something positive that you've been involved in here as a city councillor. Because I think that you're here only as an opponent. Tell us about something you're supportive of. Margalit: It's not for me to say what I've done. That's not my job. I will just quote from what one of the local reporters wrote when I resigned from my former term as city councillor: "Meir Margalit was a one-man show social welfare office." Or even better, ask the head of the welfare department what my input has been there. Go to Prazot [a public housing company] and ask them what have I done for the residents who are not obtaining their rights and what was I ready to do for them. And let me remind you, it was our common struggle to see that social housing would be handed over to eligible families. Was I not involved in the foreign workers' issues here. I guess you'll probably say they're not Jewish anyway. Peleg: No, I wouldn't say that - that is pure racism. You know I'm not racist. Margalit: And why did you say earlier that I am against haredim? Have I ever said anything against them? Go and ask them. Ask them what they think of me. I really don't think I should count my positive actions. If you don't know about them, it only means that I'm not so good in PR. But let me tell you something really important. All my activities for the Arabs are motivated by my deep caring for Am Yisrael [the Jewish people]. It is not for the Palestinians that I do what I do; it's not that I so much want to improve their situation. I want that, too, but that's not my point. You know I work in the Israeli committee against house demolition, but that's not what I call it. I call it the Israeli committee against demolishing of Am Yisrael. The only thing that matters to me is the damage we are causing ourselves. Forget all the other issues - legal, illegal. Let's concentrate on what matters to both of us: the concern for Am Yisrael. I maintain that this policy of ours will destroy us. I say that if we lose the human aspect of this state, this state will go up in smoke. That's why I do what I do, because I believe there is a self-destruction mechanism in our society, and I want to overcome it out of sheer concern for us, not for the Arabs. Peleg: And I believe that what endangers this country is exactly what you are doing. Your support for this so-called weak side, whereas the real weak side in east Jerusalem is exactly the Jewish communities who dwell there legally and suffer from their neighbors. IJ: Let's go back to municipal issues. Besides the Prazot affair, have the two of you cooperated on other matters? Peleg: We are both for tolerance, for freedom of expression. But when a decision is made, I accept it. Margalit: There was a case in which we were in total agreement - the Carta parking issue, right? Peleg: The Carta issue, yes, of course. Margalit: Surprisingly… Peleg: It's not surprising. You surprised me. First we both agreed that there should be a parking lot for the visitors and the residents of this city. And we both agreed that it should be specifically the Carta parking lot. I want to commend you for that, despite your participation in the secular demonstrations. Margalit: Elisha, Elisha, I didn't participate in any of those demonstrations. Not because I couldn't but because I wouldn't. Peleg: So you weren't there? Margalit: No, not at any of the three large demonstrations. Peleg: You did well, very well. Margalit: But even more, Elisha, do you remember when the mayor called a city council meeting to make a decision after the police suggested closing the Safra parking lot for two weeks? You remember, you and I were in favor, while all the other city council members shouted against, arguing that it would be showing weakness, caving in. Peleg: Yes, of course. We both told Barkat to close it, close it, nothing will happen. And all the others were in shock. "What? Caving in? Capitulate to the bullies?" and all that. And you know why? Because we were looking for a commonsense solution. Margalit: Yes, I remember how the others looked at us. They just didn't understand what was going on. I simply believed that we were the stronger here, so we could let go a little. Peleg: I think we are just two people who strongly believe that we have to fight for our beliefs. It's not only in cases of being against something, it could be for, pro some issue. We differ on the subjects, but we certainly share some characteristics. For example, we are both ready to go to jail for things we believe in. Margalit: Of course, in the Prazot case, we were very close. I didn't know exactly then what Elisha's position was, but it turned out we thought and said the same. In that particular case, there was a lot of money in the company's coffers. The Finance Ministry forbade us, the directors, to use that money to buy apartments for homeless families entitled to social housing, so we both said, "Let's use the money for this good reason in spite of the Finance Ministry's position, whatever happens, including if we have to sit in jail for this." Because we both - separately and simultaneously - believed that this was our mission. IJ: Why? Is it because your perception of your being city councillors is not in terms of a career but a mission? Peleg and Margalit in unison: Absolutely. That's not a career, that is definitely a mission.