The political resurrection of Avishay Braverman

Today, the world-renowned economist has returned to politics and the Knesset with renewed vigor and a strong desire to ‘affect the destiny of Israel.’

Avishay Braverman 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avishay Braverman 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was released from Assaf Harofeh Hospital after an extended stay in April, he thanked the hospital for bringing him “from death to life.”
But Ben-Eliezer was not the only Labor MK who over the past several months has been brought back from death to life – at least in a political sense.
Following MK Avishay Braverman’s March 3 announcement that he had given up his plans to seek the Labor leadership in the party’s September 12 primary, Braverman’s colleagues in the Labor faction assumed that his political career was over. They said he had clearly lost interest in his political and parliamentary work, barely spoke to other MKs and avoided the press.
“He would walk through the Knesset corridors like a political zombie,” a Labor MK said. “He didn’t talk to anyone. He didn’t really participate. We knew he was considering jobs outside politics and we were wondering how much longer he would still stick around.”
What a difference a few months can make. Braverman returned to the Knesset following its extended summer recess on Monday with renewed vigor.
He took upon himself to head a committee drafting Labor’s new socioeconomic charter, he started talking to the party’s MKs and activists again and he is now determined not only to complete his current term but also to run for the next Knesset.
Braverman’s political resurrection happened as the result of two events that occurred this summer: The protesters in the streets who preached an agenda that Braverman has been promoting for decades, and MK Shelly Yacimovich’s election as Labor leader after Braverman endorsed her shortly before her successful run-off race against MK Amir Peretz.
“I decided to stay because I feel my purpose in life is to affect the destiny of Israel,” Braverman said in an interview at his Knesset office. “I have a mission. I realized that after five years in politics, the international economic crisis required me to stay. Providence brought me to politics, and I admit it hasn’t been too good to me so far, but I have experience in promoting a fair economy and a just society, and my experience is needed.”
Braverman, 63, was once seen as the most well-known example of a successful public figure who refuses repeated overtures to enter politics. Leaders of Labor and other parties tried and failed to woo the world-renowned Stanford-educated economist, who had achieved celebrity status due to his successful 16-year run as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
When Braverman started at Ben-Gurion following a four year stint as an executive with the World Bank, the university had 5,700 students and severe economic problems.
When he left to enter politics in November 2005, the university had more than 17,000 students and no debt.
Braverman surprised many at the time when he decided to join new Labor leader Amir Peretz rather than accept an offer of an automatic high-ranking slot on the first list of Kadima. Had he joined Kadima, he would likely have become a minister.
Peretz had been expected to name Braverman to a senior cabinet post when Labor joined the Kadima-led government.
But he broke commitments he made to Braverman and appointed Ben-Eliezer instead for Peretz’s own political reasons.
Since then, Braverman’s political career has been a comedy of errors.
Braverman became the prime backer of former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ami Ayalon’s race for Labor leader against Peretz and Ehud Barak in 2007.
After Barak narrowly defeated Ayalon, Braverman and Ayalon both vowed they would never accept an empty cabinet posting as a minister-without-portfolio, but Ayalon broke his promise, joined the cabinet and left Braverman behind.
When Barak made a deal to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, Braverman initially opposed to enter the coalition. But he ended up joining the cabinet for the first time with the title of “minister of minority affairs” in what was basically the same minister-without- portfolio position he had rejected in the past.
Braverman used his post to advance key state funding to minorities and promote equality, two issues close to his heart. But over time, he became more and more critical of Barak for keeping Labor in Netanyahu’s government despite the lack of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Attempts by Braverman to force Barak to convene Labor’s institutions to consider leaving the government ended up pressuring Barak to split Labor. When Barak and four of his allies left Labor, Braverman lost his ministry and along with it his advantage over some some of his rivals for the Labor chairmanship.
When Yacimovich joined the crowded field, she took many potential Braverman supporters. He fell way behind in the polls, but his Labor colleagues were nevertheless surprised when he decided not to run.
Perhaps had he stayed in the field Braverman would have been able to capitalize on the socioeconomic protest movement that started weeks later and use it to support his candidacy. But he was no longer a contender, and Yacimovich ended up seizing the spoils.
Asked if he had pondered what might have happened had he remained in the race when the protests began, Braverman said he had learned a lesson from Lot’s wife in the Bible, who turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back.
“I have learned in life that you never look back,” he said. “Instead of looking back, you have to learn lessons, and that’s what I have done.”
One key lesson for politicians is that they have to bet on the right horse to be successful. After choosing the wrong horse more than once, Braverman finally ended up on the right side of a Labor leadership race when Yacimovich defeated Peretz.
Braverman was the only Labor MK who backed Yacimovich in the race and he thus was seen as one of the winners in her political victory. Her ascent to the Labor leadership gave him renewed hope in the party’s ability to push the socioeconomic agenda that he entered politics in order to advance.
“The next election will be about the agenda of the Labor Party under the leadership of Shelly Yacimovich,” he said. “I always appreciated her parliamentary work. When I quit the race, I initially decided not to interfere in politics. But toward the end, I saw clearly that Shelly attracted so many of the young people and that she could revitalize the party, so I decided to support her.”
Braverman denied accusations that he backed Yacimovich to spite Peretz for betraying him by not appointing him a minister.
“I don’t believe in vengeance – not in politics or private life,” he said.
Braverman challenged Yacimovich to learn from the mistakes of Peretz and others who tried to run Labor on their own and ended up alienating their party colleagues who later forced them out of office.
“Individual party leadership is a myth,” he said. “Labor will be run with collective leadership working together. The tragedy of Labor has been that it’s been every man for himself. If everyone is allowed to contribute and Labor keeps the consciousness of the street, maybe it won’t be the biggest party next election, but it can be a big party and then the biggest in the election after that.”
Braverman's idea about collective leadership is also true when it comes to fixing problems with the economy. While Israel is being acclaimed internationally for avoiding the world’s economic crisis, he sees the cup as half empty and warns that if changes are not made immediately the cup could still tip over.
“When I was growing up, Israel was one of the most equal societies in the world,” he recalled.
“Now we are competing with the US for [being the country with] the Western world’s worst gap [between rich and poor] and we lead the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] in poverty indexes. But the young people on the streets gave me hope. They didn’t rebel for lower tuition like they did in the past. They rebelled for social justice. They want to help the country, but they can’t make ends meet. Some say economics is only about growth, even if it’s not distributed.
That’s not my economics.”
Braverman advocates enlarging the budget framework and changing taxation policies. He supports Netanyahu’s efforts to fight the concentration of wealth, which he says is not a reflection of economic success, but he is critical of the prime minister on everything else.
“I tell my friends: enough greed,” he said. “If we don’t bring collectivity and responsibility, we will end up with chaos.
We need morality. Israel is supposed to be a model society. We have lost the moral soul of this country.”
Braverman vowed to devote his time in the Knesset and the public discourse toward fighting what he called “runaway capitalism gone astray” and the lost balance between the role of governments and markets that he says caused many of the worst economic problems faced by countries around the world and pose no less of a danger in Israel.
Netanyahu has taken credit for keeping Israel out of the international economic crisis via his policies as finance minister under former prime minister Ariel Sharon and his current policies today when he holds the unofficial title of “super-minister” over the economy above Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.
But Braverman counters with a cogent argument about why Netanyahu is actually responsible for Israel nearly becoming part of the international crisis, rather than for avoiding it. He says the reason Israel has not fallen like the rest of the world is that the red tape here prevented Netanyahu from deregulating and privatizing the economy more than he did and stopped him from implementing policies that have harmed countries around the world , especially the US.
“Netanyahu’s ideas of copying US financial markets weren’t implemented because of our cumbersome bureaucracy,” he said.
“If his plans hadn’t been stopped, we would be going through the same problems as everyone else. Deregulation that caused problems abroad didn’t happen here, and there was also no real-estate bubble, which also helped save Israel from the financial crisis. But Netanyahu made mistakes by taking the government out of the equation, and that has to be fixed.”
Braverman said Netanyahu mistakenly advocated cutting taxes from the rich in hopes that the money would trickle down and bring up weaker sectors of the population, but such policies have failed around the world, have created large gaps and have wasted the pension funds of hard-working people.
“The idea was to copy America because America was great,” he said. “Thank God, we didn’t end up copying New York in Tel Aviv. I lived in America and love America and the people there, and seeing what they are going through there is painful for me. I sympathize with the protesters in the US. When benevolent capitalism became corrupt capitalism, the pain inflicted on the world was enormous.
What happened on Wall Street was unfair, unjust and corrupt. Thank God, Tel Aviv didn’t copy the path of Wall Street.”
Besides economic reforms, Braverman’s remaining goal is to reform Israel’s political system. He says the system of primary elections in parties following mass membership drives needs to be changed because it has prevented many good people from entering politics.
He cites the recent Labor primary as an exception to that rule, because thousands of young people entered Labor and had a direct impact on the results of the race.
Asked if he believes Yacimovich would lead Labor into a Netanyahu-led government after the next election, Braverman answered cautiously.
“The Labor Party will offer an alternative in the next election,” he said. “I hope that in the next government, there will be a government more aggressive and serious on the diplomatic front and with entirely different economic policies.”
One figure he hopes to not see in future governments is Barak, who he says attempted to destroy Labor and will be judged by history.
Had he chosen to leave politics, Braverman would have had several options. He had been a candidate to chair banks and top companies. There was also talk of him continuing some of his ministry’s initiatives with minorities from outside the government.
When it comes to politics, he quotes Irish poet Samuel Beckett about the need to keep on trying and failing until you get it right.
“I could have had many jobs, but I am not a martyr,” he said. “I am fulfilling the purpose of my life. Politics is tough. Many advised me to to quit politics. They asked me why I have to keep on doing it, but I want to serve my people. You can start life again. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail.”