Two of the more interesting figures on Israeli Left– journalist Ari Shavit and Labor Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich– engaged in a contentious (and therefore typically Israeli) Q&A published last week in Haaretz.
Yachimovich, a former radio interviewer, entered politics to support Amir Peretz’s successful campaign for Labor Party leader– a campaign that emphasized issues of social and economic injustice within Israel. Peretz ended up serving as defense minister in Ehud Olmert’s coalition government, and has taken a lot of criticism for his handling of the recent war with Hezbollah.
Shavit tries (rather belligerently) to get Yachimovich to join in the Peretz-bashing, and she (with some evasinveness) resists. The transcript provides some insight into a side of Israeli politics about which many outsiders– with their fixed-in-cement ideas about Israel– know little. Israel is a far more complicated and interesting place than most of its foreign supporters or enemies realize.
You can be highly critical when you choose, but you were not highly critical of the war.
“Not of its military aspect. There are people who think that the minor tone of my response in that sphere has to do with my relations with Amir Peretz. That’s not so. I entered politics to deal with the social-economic sphere. I did not enter politics to be your leftist, Ari Shavit. On the contrary. On the contrary. I went into politics because I was totally fed up with this type of leftism whose whole identity rests on automatic opposition to war as such. I will not be there. I will not be the regular yuppie left-winger who goes to demonstrate against the occupation and loves Arabs but hates Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent]. I will not be in that place. I will not enter the corners in which I am expected to condemn the war and condemn the moves made during the war. That’s too easy. That’s terribly easy. It’s a lot harder to be in the place where I am.”
A war is not a simple matter. The government is responsible for war. And you are now the government, even if just part of the government. You are a senior member of a ruling party and very close to the defense minister. You, too, bear responsibility.
“You’re delivering terrible statements against the war and attaching them to me. Did I run this war? I did not come to politics to deal with the political-security arena. I’m devoting myself totally to the economic-social arena. That’s why I don’t want to be a minister and I’m not asking to be a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. All I want to do is to sit in the Finance Committee from morning until night like the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dam. That’s what I want to do.”
What you are saying is that because you decided to fight on the social-economic front, you suspended your activity in the political-security sphere even when a war broke out.
“I did not suspend anything. But I didn’t come to be your leftist. I don’t want to walk the same furrow that is being plowed by a thousand people besides me.”
We’ll leave the war aside. Are you satisfied with your social-economic achievements in the Olmert government?
“No. There is no doubt that we not only did not contribute to stopping the policy of Benjamin Netanyahu – today we are also absolute collaborators in the method of Benjamin Netanyahu. We are collaborating with a worldview that is contrary to our worldview. As an example, I can tell you that the draft of the Economic Arrangements bill that was approved last week by the cabinet is an extreme right-wing militant document. Every line in it embodies an extreme right-wing economic approach whose whole aim is to privatize the state. I consider this a post-Zionist document. Zionism, for me, is social cohesion and the state’s responsibility for all segments of the society, whereas the draft bill is a post-Zionist text.”
If so, in terms of social-economic morality, the Olmert-Peretz government is worse than even the Sharon-Netanyahu government, which you railed against.
“Unequivocally. This government is continuing the economic policy of Benjamin Netanyahu, and when you entrench a policy like that you also exacerbate it.”
Then why are you there? Why is your party cooperating with the extreme economic right?
“This coalition was not born out of love. There is no love in it. The connection is not harmonious. Both in the social-economic sphere and in the security sphere the genes of Kadima are totally different from the genes of the Labor Party. But I want to remind you of one small detail: the Labor Party did not win the elections. It is far smaller than Kadima. As such, there are now only two alternatives to the present situation: Bibi Netanyahu as finance minister and Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, or elections. I find both alternatives intolerable. They are even more intolerable than the intolerableness of this miserable coalition.”
You’re supposed to be doing battle against big money, but you’re supporting a prime minister who is the salient representative of big money.
“True. But precisely because I’m acting in a moral landscape that is so different from mine, I feel that what I am doing has value. I don’t want to boast, but I’m getting things done. Take the vote on the Cashiers Law, for example. Or stemming the erosion in the independence of the National Insurance Institute. The activity on behalf of casual workers. Preventing the closure of the tenders to train workers. The war against the insane privatization of the shelters for youth at risk. All these things might sound small to you. They make you yawn. But to me they are more important than a lot of political talk. And I’m succeeding in getting them done. I’m succeeding in preventing dismissals and preventing further harm to the weak, and every such achievement is like a whole world to me.”
I don’t buy all of Yachimovich’s rationalizations. But I appreciate her eagerness to fight unheralded battles for economic fairness and workers’ rights, even if it means passing up the opportunity to join the chorus denouncing the government’s defense policies. Israel could use more like her.