A mother figure

Dalia Itzik: The woman who could have been president (and sort of was and still might be.)

Dalia Itzik 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Dalia Itzik 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The Knesset will look less nice, some feel, when it returns after the January 22 election without Kadima faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik.
That is not a statement on the physical appearance of Itzik or her successors in the parliament. It is also not a reference to the no-jeans dress code she imposed on the Knesset in her three years as its Speaker. It refers instead to the beauty she attempted to create in her 20 years in the Knesset, especially the years she chaired it.
One of the best examples will remain after she is gone: The 20 mentally disabled young men and women whom she hired to work in the parliament will still be there.
Itzik helped other young people when she changed an inexplicable law that until then had given benefits to children who had lost one parent in terrorist attacks, but nothing to children who had lost both parents. And even younger people will benefit from legislation she passed doubling the time a new mother can take for maternity leave, from 12 to 24 weeks (the second half unpaid).
Legislation benefiting young people could be expected from Itzik, a former educator and teachers union head who was thrust into local Jerusalem and then national politics.
Now that she is about to leave the Knesset, she is in the process of writing her autobiography, and she hopes to write a series of children’s books. She does not know what else she will do, but she has received multiple offers in the public, academic and business spheres.
Despite what she calls her “time out” from politics, she is careful not to rule out running in 2014 when the Knesset is set to elect a new president. Although it is easier for MKs from the ruling party to get elected, presidential candidates do not need to be members of the parliament. They just need to be on good terms with MKs across the political spectrum, and she certainly fits the bill.
“Everything is open,” Itzik says in a recent interview.
Had she been a more selfish politician, she might already be president today. She was a popular acting president in the summer of 2007, when the Knesset voted on a replacement for Moshe Katsav. At the time, Katsav was taking a leave of absence from the post during his rape trial. In her capacity as head of state, Itzik welcomed world leaders and took steps to restore the public’s faith in the presidency that Katsav’s escapades had damaged.
Then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and other top figures urged Itzik to run, and she could easily have been elected. But she decided to make way for her political patron, and Shimon Peres became president instead.
“History ended up with me crowning him president,” she says. “I don’t regret giving up the presidency for Peres. I was not born president, and I won’t die as president, but you can do really important things in that institution.”
GIVING UP on ego, as Itzik did when she forfeited the presidency, has not been a common step for politicians in Israel. Especially not in Kadima.
Itzik beat Tzachi Hanegbi by a wide margin to win the third slot on the 2009 Kadima list after Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz. She chaired the election campaign that won the party 28 seats. But then she failed to persuade Livni to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the kind of national-unity government she had been pushing for years.
“I believed we needed to enter the coalition to get Israel out of the diplomatic and socioeconomic mud and tackle bureaucracy in this country,” Itzik says. “With 28 seats, it was possible to make a lot of key changes.”
But Livni saw things differently and kept the party in the opposition. When Mofaz took the party into the coalition for a few weeks, it was not what Itzik had in mind.
Meanwhile, Itzik worked hard behind the scenes to prevent Netanyahu, his former bureau chief Natan Eshel, and coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin from splitting Kadima. Had Itzik not stood in the way, Kadima likely would have split long before it did.
As the current election approached, Itzik again did everything possible to prevent a split in the party and persuade Livni and Mofaz to run together, ideally under Olmert’s leadership.
Itzik says there was a terrific chance to bring in an all-star team of candidates that could have competed with Netanyahu and former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman. But she says the results were the test, and she admits that she failed.
“I thought an umbrella party under Olmert could have been an alternative to the current regime,” she says. “Unfortunately the egos won, and the ‘I’ defeated the ‘we.’ I saw tons of ego that was inexplicable among leaders of parties – without being specific, of course. It’s surprising and worrisome. What happened to Kadima is a tragedy.”
One potential leader for the Center-Left bloc whom she discouraged from running was Peres. She did not want him to leave office early to run, because she believed it would have harmed the institution of the presidency – even though holding a presidential election now among the current Knesset members could have helped her chances.
Meanwhile, she is maintaining her relationship with politicians on all sides of the political map. In a week in which Minister-without- Portfolio Michael Eitan slammed Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who is running on the same list as Eitan’s Likud, Itzik defended him.
“I don’t understand why he had to be indicted a month before the election,” she says. “It reduces the public’s faith in the State Attorney’s Office. It’s legal torture, and it looks bad.”
She is even on good terms with Netanyahu, who reportedly secretly wanted her as speaker of the outgoing Knesset and not Reuven Rivlin.
Following her return from the Saban Forum in Washington earlier this month, she complained that her Israeli colleagues were much more political than their counterparts in the United States who had attended the event.
“The Democrats and Republicans spoke politely with manners, while the Israeli politicians from different parties refused to talk to each other,” she laments. “Israel cannot afford such behavior. It’s not the US. The country is stuck, and there are problems that our politicians need to be fixing.”
She recommends taking key issues like reforms in public service and the elimination of bureaucracy, and dealing with them immediately in a non-partisan way. She mocks new politicians who are entering politics and making grandiose political promises.
“People think they will come, press a button and everything will be fixed in a country and region that are only getting more complicated,” she says. “There are so many obstacles that require experience to overcome. It takes time to understand how politics works and how to handle the interpersonal relations and achieve the reputation, the position, and the trust of the public you need to get things done.”
Asked what advice she would give to young politicians, she says: “It doesn’t hurt to be quiet and learn issues before you make decisions.
I did that as a minister – I would meet with people, study the information they and others gave me, and then call them back personally after a week... to tell them my decision.”
ITZIK, 60, came to politics in a roundabout way. Her mother, Marcelle, came from Iraq without a penny in her pocket and raised eight successful children in poverty in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood.
Marcelle died on December 19 after a long illness, five years after Itzik dedicated an Independence Day torch in her honor at Mount Herzl. At the ceremony, Itzik called her mother a lioness and said her life story symbolized the journey of immigrants to Israel.
Itzik taught literature and Bible and headed the Jerusalem Teachers Association until legendary mayor Teddy Kollek told her she must run for the Jerusalem City Council. She served as deputy mayor and held the education portfolio.
Labor Party officials who wanted an MK who understood education then drafted her to run for the Knesset, which she entered for the first time in 1992. She was on stage at the November 1995 peace rally in which then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
She rose through the ranks, serving as environment minister in Ehud Barak’s government, and held the Industry and Trade and Communications portfolios under Ariel Sharon. Her top achievements as environment minister included expanding bottle recycling and ensuring that state income from littering fines went toward cleaning cities.
Itzik was elected Knesset speaker in 2006 and served in the post until after the 2009 election.
As speaker, she welcomed world leaders to the parliament, including US president George W.
Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
She never held her dream job of education minister, a post Peres had promised her if he won the 1996 election. She says that even if she were prime minister she would hold the Education portfolio, because it would send a message about what was truly important.
“The real security of the country is education,” she says. “It’s up to the prime minister to ensure the budget for education and make it a priority.”
Although her English is not perfect and her Israeli accent is strong, Itzik has been called a leading spokesperson for the country in international events because of how she says things.
“I built connections with the world,” she says. “It was important to me that the Knesset be seen as the home of all the Jewish people. Women look at things from a wider perspective. They can act as the mother of the nation. I did my best.”