Shelly Yacimovich - Yael Yehiel - 19082011
Shelly Yacimovich Photo by Yanai Yehiel
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A few weeks ago, Shelly (Rachel ) Yachimovich, 51, who wants to become the next head of the Labor Party, was in Jerusalem for a meeting organized by her supporters. During our interview at her apartment in central Tel Aviv, she recalls: "The membership drive was at its height and during the meeting a charming and intelligent young woman told me she was thinking of joining the party. She said she wanted to know whether, as head of the party, I would lead its members to demonstrate in Bil'in. I told her, 'The answer is no, unequivocally, and if that's your concern then you shouldn't join Labor, or maybe you should join, but not through me.'"

Bil'in - the West Bank village where Israelis, Palestinians and internationals demonstrate every week against the separation wall - is not the only place Yachimovich will not visit. She has not been to the tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, either, though it's very close to both her home and her heart. She has only passed by on her bicycle as she makes her way from place to place on a nonstop round of visits.

Where did you disappear to? Why haven't you been to the tent camp?

"I object vehemently to photo-ops like that. I consider photos like that to be cheap and contemptible. From my point of view, this protest is the fulfillment of a dream - for the first few days I walked around with tears in my eyes. At a moment like this, when something so authentic is sprouting, with such tremendous power, I think you have to leave it alone and be happy for it and not do anything to it that could be taken as political spin."

Were you afraid to visit the tents?

"Not in the least - many of my campaign staff are among the tent dwellers. It's definitely a supportive crowd. I pass Rothschild by bike quite often and chat with people, many of whom I know personally, but I do so in a natural vein and not as a politician paying a visit. The moment I see a camera I just avoid it. The protest is a wild stallion that doesn't need to be shown the way."

What do you think about the fact that the settlers joined the protest? Do you welcome them, does it make you happy?

"Yes, unequivocally. One of the most significant points of strength of this protest is that you don't see the conventional political posters. There is a new language, a unifying language, a uniting language."

But if the billions that were invested in the settlements had been invested inside the Green Line, maybe we wouldn't need the tents.

"I am familiar with that well-known equation: that if there were no settlements there would be a welfare state within Israel's borders. I am familiar with the worldview that maintains that if we cut the defense budget in half there will be money for education. It's a worldview with no connection to reality. I reject it; it is simply not factually correct, even though it is now perceived as axiomatic. A school that is located in a settlement and has X number of students would be located inside the Green Line and have the same number of children at the same cost. I don't say that the settlements themselves did not cost more money. But even if the defense budget were cut in half, and even if the settlement costs were cut in half, the economic ideology that led us to them would not seek to divert the newly available funds to the service of the state.

"Both Netanyahu and Olmert constantly spoke about thinning out the public service. Netanyahu said that the education system is a fat cow that doesn't give milk. When you consider that there is a fat man and a fat cow that doesn't give milk, you don't transfer budgets to them, period, because you think they should be thin or privatized. That is a Thatcherist approach which has nothing to do with the political right or left.

"What is happening now is so potent that it is shaking off the old discourse that shackles us to the same dogmas and the same rhetoric, but is finally connecting to the truth. Until now that truth has been kept hidden."

What is your opinion of the settlement project as such? Is it a terrible sin and a crime, or the continuation of Zionism by other means?

"I certainly do not see the settlement project as a sin and a crime. In its time it was a completely consensual move. And it was the Labor Party that founded the settlement enterprise in the territories. That is a fact. A historical fact."

Would you buy products from the settlements, such as olive oil from Har Bracha?

"Yes. I am not in favor of boycotts."

What about the performing artists who refuse to appear in Ariel?

"They have every right to do that; I would not do it."

Perfect timing

Prime Minister Netanyahu was recently heard saying, in private conversations with MKs and journalists, that he is convinced that Yachimovich will win the contest for the Labor Party leadership, which is scheduled to take place within a few weeks. "She will win and take votes from Kadima without hurting the right-wing bloc, just like Yair Lapid," Netanyahu said complacently - referring to the popular journalist and television personality who might enter politics. He seemed totally oblivious to the political big bang that the tent protest could generate. Nor could the protest have been better timed for Yachimovich.

She could not dream of a more congenial atmosphere in which to make a run for the position once held by David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. Who cares about Abu Mazen, the settler outposts, the separation fence and Gaza flotillas when a long chain of tents is changing the landscape of the iconic Tel Aviv boulevard? Who is thinking about the possible events in September or contemplating the centrifuges in Iran when hundreds of thousands are shouting that the people want social justice?

The former student from Be'er Sheva and member of Peace Now in the early 1980s is now an MK who says that already at the start of her career as the political correspondent of Israel Radio, she understood that the real story lay elsewhere. "What is happening now," she says, "is as though a cataract has been removed from the eyes of masses of people simultaneously. At one of our many meetings she says passionately: "That cataract was removed from my eyes many years ago, when I was still a journalist."

Are you against the consumer protest and accompanying boycott to fight the high price of cottage cheese?

"I see my mission and my role as one of providing the context. And by the way, there is an essential difference between the cottage cheese episode and the tent protest. To say "I want my cottage cheese here and now cheaply, no matter what," is not the protest I want. But to talk about a basic, collective need for housing and connect it with the social-democratic discussion and to challenge the system is to catapult the issue 10 floors upward."

What did you think of the tent leaders' request to hold talks with Netanyahu that would be broadcast live?

"I identify strongly with the logic of that request, which boils down to: Stop striking deals in back rooms, let's finally hold a discussion about public issues in public."

Should the government provide free education for children up to the age of five - and not just from compulsory kindergarten - as the protesters are demanding?

"Yes, unequivocally."

If someone inherits NIS 4-5 million, should he have to share it with other people?

"Yes."

Are you in favor of stopping the privatization process totally?

"Certainly."

Would you raise the minimum wage? "Of course. It's impossible to live on NIS 3,800 a month. And by the way, if you want to know how to fund a large part of these necessary changes, all you have to do is freeze the tax reform. Nothing else, nothing dramatic, a totally gentle move. And freezing the tax reform is a move everyone agrees on, except for Bibi and [Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz."

Will Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who marched red-cheeked with the resident doctors, be able to reap the fruits of the struggle?

"The person who signaled the start of extreme-right, Thatcherist, neoliberal, unbridled and also outdated economics was Netanyahu as finance minister in 2003-2005. But those who danced to the piper's tune in full faith and submission were from Kadima, unequivocally. Kadima is now in large measure a more economically neoliberal party than Likud. The dominant economic voice in Kadima is a privatizing one, a voice that protects the owners of capital. Take note than even on the natural-gas issue, there was authentic opposition in Kadima to a redistribution of the profits from the gas.

"Livni is unequivocally a neoliberal - she was CEO of the government corporations authority. What we have here in large measure is a costume ball in which people who were totally alienated from economic and social problems, or did not deal with them, or did not discern a problem, or preferred out of convenience to focus only on political right-left issues are suddenly changing their rhetoric."

Maybe Yair Lapid - who called the middle class "my enslaved brethren" - will be the dark horse of the next elections?

"I like Yair personally; he is a talented person. I was a very close friend of his father, but a fierce ideological adversary. In our meetings, which were based on deep friendship, 80 percent of the time was taken up by bitter ideological arguments. Yair does not reflect a social-democratic agenda, but its complete opposite."

What about Aryeh Deri? Will he be the big gainer from this earthquake? Does he deserve to return?

"It's very hard for me to accept the concept that a person who was convicted of criminal offenses will be a leader. We do not see contrition here. What we see is a rejection of the court's authority and the total absence of regret for what he did. I find it very difficult to accept the return of someone like that to politics. People tell me, 'The public will decide,' 'He paid his debt to society,' 'He will be an essential political partner after the elections' - but that does not influence my position of principle that criminals should not be leaders. Isn't that self-evident?"

Betrayal of trust

Yachimovich entered politics six years ago at the behest of MK Amir Peretz, who was the head of the Labor Party at the time. Back then, she viewed him as an "idealist." Today, he is a bitter rival.

Your leading opponent in the race for the Labor Party leadership is Amir Peretz. How do you respond to those who say you betrayed him on a colossal scale, because without him you would never have entered the Knesset?

"That is of course baseless. When I enjoyed massive backing from Amir Peretz I finished ninth in the primaries, and when he worked against me with all his might, in the second contest, I got to fourth place in the primaries. So, simple arithmetic shows that I possess my own electoral power and that the public is attentive to my worldview. I entered politics because Amir Peretz was the head of the Labor Party. I had known him for years and held him in very high regard. I thought that this was truly a historic opportunity in which Labor would become a social-democratic party - but that proved false in an extremely acute and unequivocal way. In other words, Labor, even though it won 19 seats - a very fine achievement at the time - betrayed the trust of its voters."

When did you discover this?

"Immediately after the elections. By the way, in the bluntest possible terms, I was against Peretz taking the defense portfolio. I knew it would be a mistake, and it indeed turned out to be a very, very serious mistake."

So Peretz, who for years has been considered a courageous and sharp-toothed fighter for social justice, is simply pulling the wool over our eyes?

"I can't see inside people. I look at the result, which I found totally unacceptable and grieved me deeply. There is no doubt that it was a moment of acute crisis - personally, ideologically and politically."

In 2007, in the second round of the race for the party leadership, you said that you and Ehud Barak hold the same macroeconomic outlook. How did you reach that conclusion?

"I met with Barak several times and he persuaded me with deep conviction that he was in favor of budgetary expansion. All the macroeconomic theses he put forward sounded reasonable to me. But even when I announced I was supporting him, I made it clear that I was doing so because I am a political person and I can't sit on the fence. And I made it clear that I abominated his way of life. I didn't think any new dawn was about to break."

If Yachimovich wins (and nothing is certain in this race ), she knows she won't have even a minute to celebrate. "I can take pain," she told her supporters at a meeting last week.

Some people still find you antipathetic and you stir antagonism in them. Are you aware of that image?

"I see a great many polls and they suggest that I arouse not only esteem but also sentiments. A politician cannot act without generating emotion. The nuance of what you are saying implies simple chauvinism. That found expression in the well-known 'bad bad bad' of Rani Rahav [what the PR man called Yachimovich in a letter he published in the press]. It's a discourse aimed specifically at women. You will find it in every discussion where there is a woman who has reached a place where some do not want to see her. Even Tzipi Livni - a completely unthreatening and non-defiant politician, and also not a feminist - got the same treatment. I accept it with resignation."

Is your aim to become prime minister?

"As a future vision, certainly; as a realistic goal, no. The head of the Labor Party will not be asked to form a government after the next elections. The Labor Party has a long way to go before it gains public trust, and it has to proceed on a true, deep, ideological and honest path. Not by hocus-pocus."

Anthem and tomb

Do you support the proposal put forward by your friend, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, for children from the age of three to start the morning in nursery school by singing the national anthem?

"Yes, completely. I don't think that is even a left-right issue. It seems to me self-evident. I am sometimes very embarrassed to stand among high-school students who don't even know the national anthem. That's the ABC of every civilized country and it has nothing to do with nationalism."

Are you also in favor of the visits he wants schools to make to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron?

"It depends on the context. If the tours are made with historians who explain our heritage - the tomb and its mention in the Jewish sources, the developments since then - and also talks about the present-day political context, that is legitimate. Heritage values do not belong only to the right wing in Israel."

Does the Temple Mount speak to you, those archaeological ruins?

"Yes, definitely, it speaks to me. Our existence here is not a fleeting one, it has ongoing historical grounds, and I do feel all the layers, which include belonging to the Jewish people, with all its history, and yes, I identify with symbols."

Have you met with Palestinian leaders in recent years?

"I know them personally from my period as a reporter - I interviewed many of them. That is not part of my route of visits. Not at this stage. The moment I hold an executive position that will enable me to influence those developments I will of course do it happily. At the moment, these are groundless symbolic acts."

Since 1967, would you describe our relations with the Palestinians as one of criminals and victims?

"Unequivocally not. We are certainly not criminals. It is clear to me that suffering exists, deep suffering on both sides, and I am not ignoring that suffering, but I see the Zionist enterprise as one of the most moral and just projects, I would say, in human history."

Immediately after Operation Cast Lead, in Gaza, you wrote your activists about Ehud Barak: "I am certain that there is no one worthier than he to lead a crisis of this kind." How do you reconcile that with what you know about his views on attacking Iran?

"Barak did not want to carry out Operation Cast Lead - he absolutely bowed to political pressure. I know that with certainty. I was there. Barak thought that the same results could be achieved without an operation that would entail a steep price. I saw the erosion and the political pressure that was applied, Olmert's manipulations, Tzipi Livni's pushing, and the straw that broke the camel's back was when Jumes [Haim Oron, at the time head of Meretz] called for an attack against Gaza. I saw it happening before my eyes, so what I wrote then is still valid today. I assume that Barak's narrative today is that he did it on the basis of a conscious decision, because people don't like to depict themselves as having been dragged into such dramatic actions."

What would you accept as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

"I can live peacefully with the Clinton blueprint: preserving the settlement blocs, a certain separation of the neighborhoods in Jerusalem and of course opposition to the right of return."

Is it tactical considerations that stop you from dealing with the conflict, a wish to be part of the consensus?

"Absolutely not. I believe with every fiber of my being that a social-democratic agenda will also bring about a political breakthrough and peace. Wherever there is poverty and ignorance and broad social disparities, you will find fascism and racism and a tendency to formulate the common formative ethos around xenophobia and war. Tzipi Livni intones "two states for two nations" three times a day - not that she is spearheading any political breakthrough - and Meretz says "Down with the occupation" splendidly and faithfully. I have a different mission.

Taking on the tycoons

Here is a passage from a forthcoming book by Yachimovich, entitled "Us," which is dedicated to her ex-husband Noam Ziv and her close friend Shalom Kital, a well-known journalist:

"I was five years old when, to my parents' shame, I kicked a neighbor after he kicked a street cat in the stomach ... I was 13 when I refused to enter the classroom for the home economics lesson after the teacher wrote on the blackboard that the wife's role is to clean, iron, cook, etc; and 15 when I was thrown out of school for hanging up posters denouncing a despotic principal."

In addition to new material, the book also contains posts, articles and speeches which give expression to her complex worldview. In one passage she rips into Peace Now for ordering peace flags from China: "When a peace movement orders made-in-China flags and completely ignores the significance of the social-economic-moral process this symbolizes, I see this as an ocean-sized moral lacuna." Parts of the book are devoted to her effective parliamentary work, the many laws she sponsored and her struggle against corruption. Betwixt and between, there are acid anecdotes from life in the Knesset. In Yachimovich's first week as an MK, the finance minister at the time - and current jailbird - Avraham Hirchson was the guest of the Knesset's Finance Committee. "In my dream," he said, "Israel is managed like a business in every sense."

"I was appalled," Yachimovich recalls. "I was the only MK who clashed with him. I told him that my parents, Holocaust survivors, had not immigrated to Israel in order to live in a grocery store or in a business corporation. And I am certain that today his words would rupture people's eardrums."

Parts of the book are devoted to the tycoons and her continuing war against them: from Shari Arison to Nochi Dankner and Lev Leviev - the same people who are now targets of the protesters and possibly of Netanyahu, too.

Should the tycoons now be the target in a real way?

"Of course they should. I am in favor of personalizing discussion of this subject. I think that the lack of personalization and the attempt to hide behind public companies that are traded on the stock exchange is causing a moral breakdown and effectively allowing people, in their capacity as corporations, to do deeds that are immoral. If a private person were to do such things, they would be considered completely criminal. We are not talking about 100,000 nameless and faceless security guards who earn NIS 20 an hour. These are about 10 people, more or less, who control the economy, the credit market, the capital market and the labor force, as well as people's consciousness through their control of the communications media, whether as owners or advertisers, and also control the political constellation. It's a mortal blow to democracy."

What is dangerous about someone like Yitzhak Tshuva, who with his own two hands rose from the margins of society to the status of a tycoon?

"I reject that thesis. There is a large group of owners of capital who ostensibly made their fortune with their own hands, but they did it thanks to the state education system that afforded them a good education by means of public taxes and they also did it thanks to the excellent health-care system that existed in Israel until not long ago. Another contributing factor was the thousands of other people who worked for them for low wages and thus allowed them to augment their fortune. The concept of 'making my fortune with my own two hands and it belongs to me and only to me' is morally very defective and is, by the way, unique to Israeli tycoons. You see in texts by people like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that they are authentically grateful to the society for helping them to become rich. That is why people like Buffett and Gates, for example, are fighting for an inheritance tax; they are simply the strongest lobby for that such a tax."

Would you expect people like Nochi Dankner and Yitzhak Tshuva to share part of their future estate?

"Unequivocally yes, and I would expect them not to generate a false social discourse by means of dubious philanthropy, which is also based on public money. After all, the money they donate, sign for and leverage for endless public relations is not money they took from their own pockets - it is the public's money, which is invested in bonds and stocks, in pension funds and provident funds, in companies they control. It follows that this is a totally false, fabricated mechanism that is intended to prepare the ground and forge good PR for actions that are unfair and immoral."

Can you give examples of immoral behavior by Israeli tycoons?

"Nochi Dankner's IDB swallowed Ganden, which was losing money, and what happened was that instead of Dankner paying the debts out of his own pocket, the public paid and is continuing to pay those debts. There is a whole set of behaviors that would be considered immoral if done by an individual. When Leviev creates a "haircut" for investors and concurrently builds the most expensive home in the history of Britain, made of slate and gold and God knows what, that is a very deep moral breakdown. Or take Ilan Ben Dov [owner of Partner Communications]: Where does his great talent lie? He didn't build anything. He didn't build a factory, he didn't make machines, he didn't provide people with jobs, he is not an industrialist, he is not Stef Wertheimer and he is not Dov Lautman, he is not someone who built something and created something in the Land of Israel. His only talent is his ability to get the capital market to allow him to raise more and more money from the public. And I say that anyone who does not meet his commitment should simply be forbidden to raise more money from the public."

Since 2006, when you entered the Knesset, have you seen this force of capital succeed in penetrating the corridors of the Knesset, the regulatory agencies, politics?

"All the time. I saw it from the first moment. A case in point is Israel Chemicals, which belongs to the Ofer brothers. When the treasury did the right thing and excluded Israel Chemicals from tax benefits granted in the periphery, for the simple reason that you can't move the Dead Sea to China, IC fought back hard. They had a whole army of people who ran roughshod over the MKs, and you saw that MKs had been briefed by them.

Is that a widespread phenomenon?

"There is a very clear way to tell, in an economic committee, whether the subject at hand belongs to large parts of the public and affects their fate, or has to do with one powerful individual: you can tell by how crowded the room is. If you enter the room and see a routine, sometimes sleepy discussion, you can understand that the subject has to do with, say, public housing. If you can't get into the room and feel tremendous excitement in the air, if ushers are bringing in chairs because there is no place to sit, if lobbyists are scurrying to and fro and saving places for their bosses, if there is a glut of lawyers and experts whose services have been hired, you can be sure that what's at stake is the vested interests of one tycoon. You sometimes see a very deep and thorough discussion, which lasts into the night, with people arguing, learning and reaching conclusions, and then suddenly, when it comes time to vote, the door opens and MKs who didn't take part in the discussion for even a minute enter, sometimes nudged by lobbyists, and simply vote as they have been told. That is an intolerable, indecent phenomenon."

When Nochi Dankner wanted to create a monopoly in cement production, you were in favor. You stated in the Finance Committee that a monopoly can sometimes be a good thing. Explain, please.

"True. Unequivocally. To begin with, I am not against monopolies. I do not share the rising melody that says monopolies are destructive and deadly. A monopoly in the right circumstances can be good. I don't belong to the school that says monopolies are bad and decentralization is good. By the way, I have no problem with government monopolies. The privatizations of national electric companies in other countries turned out to be terrible failures."

It is axiomatic that every monopoly is a bad thing, especially if it's private.

"Not so. If a private monopoly is broken up in favor of a dumping of imports from abroad and we are flooded with cheap goods that are made in Turkey or China, and I see Israeli firms collapsing and people left without a livelihood - and given the fact that local industry is also export-oriented and increases growth and contributes to the whole economy - at such moments I will defend a monopoly wholeheartedly."

You have given sweeping support to the strong work committees and you were an ally of Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, the darling of the rich.

"In every normal country the trade unions are an integral part of a struggle, they are hugely important in stopping the process of a transfer of capital from the many to the few, and I am vehemently opposed to curtailing them. The right to organize was acquired with blood in the United States and Europe. At present we are regressing, and one of my tasks is to put a stop to that. If everything is privatized, everyone will become human dust. If the Electric Corporation is privatized, instead of 10,000 workers from the middle class and a management that does not earn a very large salary, you will get 10,000 workers from manpower companies at NIS 21.04 an hour, and an Ofer family that mines its fortune from a state-owned resource. That is a recipe I will fight against."

What about Eini and the Histadrut?

"People like to personalize things. As someone who has a 'doctorate' in the Histadrut, going back to my reporter days, I can say that the Histadrut was always a victim of verbal abuse. There is something suicidal in this. The Histadrut was a fashionable victim in the privatization of Hevrat Haovdim holding company, when 30,000 people were sent home and everyone applauded the late genius [Benny] Gaon, who by then had already come to regret the move. The Histadrut was a fashionable victim when Haim Ramon separated payment to Kupat Holim [the health maintenance organization] and payment to trade unions, and everyone applauded out of the same suicidal attitude toward the Histadrut. And what happened? Seventy percent of the workers remained without health protection! I am not willing to be part of the fashionable trend that serves Netanyahu, [Haaretz analyst] Nehemia Shtrasler, [economist] Dr. Omer Moav and all those for whom trade unions are a curse." W