The quality of Dalia
Refurbishing the parliament's hall, taking over for the disgraced president Moshe Katsav, helping her beleaguered friend Haim Ramon, keeping a sharp eye on media reports about her - Knesset Speaker Itzik has had an exhausting year. But that hasn't kept her from planning her next move: into the President's Residence.
A broad corridor leads to the compound in which the bureau of Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik is located. The floor is padded with soft red carpet, a dozen large potted plants line the passage, and on the wall is an exhibition marking the 40 years of the Knesset building's existence.
"This is 'Dalia Boulevard,'" whispers Itzik, who immediately erases the smile that stole onto her lips, stiffens her back and continues the noontime tour of the Knesset, surrounded by her aides. They address her as "Madam," "Speaker" or "Madam Speaker," and the melody of those words seems to be music to her ears. Members of the Knesset Guard whom she passes on her way bow slightly and quickly check to make sure their shirt is buttoned and tucked properly into their trousers. One of Itzik's feet is bare and bandaged, due to pains she felt that morning; the other is in a high-heeled striped sandal. Itzik always wears high heels. Even when she is alone at home. She says she needs them because she is short. Despite the pain and the difficulty of walking, she insists on completing the tour. In the 16 months of her tenure as the Israeli parliament's first female speaker, the Knesset has undergone a massive face-lift, and Itzik is proud to show off the results.
She enters the chamber, now empty because the Knesset is in recess, and takes a deep breath. Apart from a new stain on the light-colored carpet - which is also going to be replaced - the speaker is pleased with what she sees. The MKs' chairs have been reupholstered, the wrinkled flag of Israel adjacent to her dais has been replaced, the Chagall tapestries have been sent to France to be cleaned, and the armored glass that encloses the visitors' gallery has been polished after years of neglect. "You can't imagine how filthy it was here," she says.
But don't let her hear you say she brought a "woman's touch" to the Knesset. "When people tell me it's a woman's touch, I get angry ... Is it a woman's touch to cancel the project of the Knesset visitors' center and save NIS 30 million? Is it a woman's touch to oust 40 employees? And it's terribly hard for me to let people go. I come from a home in which the father didn't work. It's hard for me to fire people. I know what hunger is. But I don't remember that the public service gave severance pay as respectable as that given here, and I make no apologies for that."
It's not only the exterior appearance of the Knesset that is changing. Substantively, Itzik has promoted a comprehensive reform to improve the functioning of the legislative branch. For example, she has introduced public participation in some Knesset committee discussions via the Internet. In another departure, she has stated that sanctions will be taken against MKs who submit parliamentary questions to ministers and are absent when they are answered. Itzik announced that she would hire 17 disabled people to work in the Knesset, and also changed the status of contracted staff into full-fledged employees with rights.
"This house is not my house, it is the house of the public," she declares. "Its honor is the honor of the people of Israel. Accordingly, I do not raise my voice in the plenum. I don't remember ever having to remove anyone, other than in the period of the war. I never use the gavel. I have introduced the wearing of tags and a dress code. You are wondering whether this is important enough for me to deal with, right? After all, I am not some kind of cultural inspector, or anything like that. But it makes a statement. You don't come to the Knesset in sports clothes or beach shoes. That was not self-evident. Today no employees show up for work in jeans. This is the nation's seat of honor."
A matter of character
The past year was a successful period in the career of Dalia Itzik, who will be 55 next month, and was born to a family of Iraqi origin in Jerusalem: In addition to her current role as speaker, she was acting president of Israel for about six months beginning this past January, and for two weeks was president in practice. Now affiliated with Ariel Sharon's Kadima party, she was a longtime member of the Labor Party, serving as an MK since 1992 as well as in a number of ministerial roles. Before being elected to the Knesset, she served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem. At the present time, according to Israel Radio polls, she enjoys considerable popularity and public esteem.
Itzik controls every nuance of her public behavior: from her speeches, which she sometimes spends long hours refining, to the arrangement of her hair. From the moment she became speaker, there has hardly been a senior foreign diplomatic visitor who has not met with her. Itzik prepares for these meetings meticulously, so she can engage in small talk about the guest's family, friends or hobbies. She has a special folder in which she makes highly detailed notes about what she will say, in Hebrew and English.
In contrast to her predecessors, Itzik is a convenient speaker from the point of view of the prime minister. "Look, many times it is expected that if you are elected speaker you have to be confrontational," she notes. "[Reuven] Rivlin was confrontational toward Sharon, [Avraham] Burg was confrontational toward [Ehud] Barak. I am not sure that is exactly what the public wants - for me to quarrel with the prime minister every day. And in general, I have the feeling that the public is tired of politicians' quarrels. I hear my family. They don't care who quarrels with whom - what they want is solutions for their honorable existence as citizens.
"I can tell you," says Itzik, "that I simply enjoy working with [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert. Since I have held this office, I don't remember that he has asked anything from me. Let's say he said, 'Listen, it's really inconvenient for me for you to hold this discussion today,' or, 'Try to do something so there won't be a no-confidence vote today.' I respect that very much. Once he asked me in the plenum not to hold a debate on the selection of rabbinical court judges. I have to say that I was in shock. I replied, 'Mr. Prime Minister, I heard you, I am declaring a five-minute break.' It's not necessary to say what went on in my office when we gathered her with all his representatives. It's best if the walls will say nothing. I returned to the plenum and stated, 'I heard the prime minister - and the selection will take place.'"
As Itzik tells it, nothing short of a love story has developed between her and the prime minister, even if it didn't look that way at the beginning. "When what happened to Sharon happened - and I was very fond of Sharon - I did not think I would be able to be in Kadima under Olmert's leadership. I thought I should leave because I need to work with someone whom I feel I can respect and hold in high regard. It's a matter of character."
Where would you have gone to? You had left the Labor Party and were no longer an MK. It could have been the end of your political career.
"Every political person who does not take into account that one day he will not be here is making a mistake. Believe me, in the years I have been here I have often said to myself, 'This is the last time.' I think this is extremely demanding work. I love it very much, I come here with joy, but I am also sometimes very tired." Itzik relates that before she became speaker, Olmert told her that he holds her in high esteem and respects the differences between them. He also always invites her to every ministerial meeting and every consultation.
"I feel it's possible to criticize him without it working against me," she says. "I don't feel that I tell him things and afterward he makes a face. People who are exposed to him like him very much. His staff likes him very much. I see how the Shin Bet [security service] bodyguards talk about him warmly. I see his family. It is a very interesting family. The pluralism there is very lovely, it attests to a certain something."
You often say that as Knesset speaker you are upset by the negative image of the country's elected representatives and the lack of trust in them. The prime minister and some of his aides are today under criminal investigation in various affairs, and the interim conclusions of the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War surely did not enhance the feeling that he is someone to believe in. How is the pluralism in Olmert's family supposed to reassure us?
"You know, I have to tell you this: I have a very high regard for the media. I have such a high regard that I can be hurt by them in ways you can't imagine. So that is like a weakness, right? I care what people say about me. And I thought, for example, that Ehud is someone who doesn't care what others say about him. That he had the hide of an elephant and argues with everyone. But that is not true. In my eyes, an investigation is not yet an outcome. I can show you that 80 percent of the mayors who were investigated were exonerated. Who compensates those people for all the reports? And if the investigations now being conducted against the prime minister turn up nothing, what will you say then?
"I also saw him at war. I can't tell you whether that war should have been launched or not. Even though I supported it, I will not make things easy for myself. Still, I have experience with a few prime ministers, and this man has nerves of steel. I don't know how it would have ended with a different prime minister. I took part in a few security meetings, including at least one very rough one at night, and I saw how focused he was and how he asked every question. He impressed me very much. I really changed my mind about him during the war. I know that I am saying something very strong here. I know I am saying something that people will read and they will be taken aback. After all, there was no feeling of a knockout in the war.
"I also saw how anguished he was. I think there are a great many things he does not want to talk about. I am not sure he will like what I am saying now, but I know for a fact that, with regard to quite a few questions he asked, the army said the outcome would be one thing and in reality it was something different. In other words, the outcome was bad. At 3 or 4 in the morning he would sit and wait for them to return from the action and in the end the outcome was different from what he had been told it would be. And, after all, who is the Israel Defense Forces? The IDF is my son, your son, my husband and your husband. That is why I feel that in the end he decided to back the IDF. And what I am saying is not in his name; it's in my name only.
"When we judge this war in terms of the outcome, Hezbollah is not perched on our border. We pushed them away, there is a buffer zone between us and Hezbollah. And now I will tell you something very serious, but I want to say it. I read the Winograd report very thoroughly. I choose my words carefully: The decision-making process that is described in the report pertains to a utopian state. This is how decisions are made in utopia. How do I know that what I am saying is correct? Because I was a cabinet minister in the government. I see the decision-making process described by the Winograd Committee as one that is not more flawed than other processes. That does not mean that what existed all these years until now was right. But it does mean that it existed all those years."
Itzik believes that loyalty in political life pays. She has been loyal to Shimon Peres for more than 20 years, and also loyal to the vice premier, Haim Ramon, for a long time. It was enough to see how she fell on Ramon's neck calling out "Haimke" when he returned to the Knesset, after being convicted of indecent assault of a 21-year-old female soldier, to understand that for her, being a friend means going through fire and water for him.
"Haim is not a person who lies," Itzik explains. "If he had sat with me and said, 'Hey, she had an amazing figure, and that's why I started up with her,' that would be something else. But what he told me was: 'That is how I interpreted her behavior.' I believe him. I am not crazy about it, and I have the feeling that you would not hug a cabinet minister like that. I didn't see that the judicial system had even one word to say about it. That does not justify his behavior, of course. There was no need for that to happen, and I wouldn't want it to happen to my daughter or my friend. I say that without pulling any punches. But I saw him breaking, and I saw the sadness and the contrition, and I saw the 'How did this happen to me?' and the 'Why did this happen to me?'"
Itzik's symbiotic relations with Peres, though, were damaged a bit during the race for president, or at least that was the feeling of those who reported on the events in the media. She openly and vigorously backed a declaration of incapacitation for Moshe Katsav, rather than his ouster. This was taken as an attempt to ensure herself a lengthy term as acting president, which would prepare the ground for her to run for the position. Peres wanted the presidency, even if he declared that late in the game, and was apprehensive that his ally would run against him.
"I had a frank conversation with Peres, which I initiated," Itzik recalls. "I told him: 'Shimon, I want you to know that if you run for president, I will not run, and I will do everything in my power for you to be elected.' And I went ahead and worked for his election. I didn't feel that any tension was created, at least not from my side.
"And on top of that, how could I have led a line of incapacity for Katsav? And by the way, I am very proud that the Knesset took that decision. Imagine what would have happened if we had removed him from office, in light of the conclusion reached by [Attorney General] Meni Mazuz. What would you have said about the Knesset then?"
Katsav admitted to an indecent act and sexual harassment. In retrospect, didn't that justify his removal? Do you think he got off too lightly with the plea bargain?
"No, I don't think it is light. But I am not the judicial branch and I am not the law-enforcement authority in Israel. If the president asked to be declared incapacitated, I think we should have given him that, because that is what Mazuz thought, too. I listen to him."
Itzik says she treated the position of acting president with respect and caution. "It was very hard for me. There were days - mainly nights, actually - when I felt I couldn't breathe I was so tired. You have to understand: You are not the president [in that situation], you are a quarter of a president. I did not even approach the desk in the President's Residence, I never sat on his chair. I sat in a corner, almost apologetically. Like you walk around in your mother's heels. Very careful, you know, not to step on things ... and that was exhausting. It was clear that it was temporary trust. What I absolutely did not have to do, I didn't do. What I absolutely had to do, I tried to do as well as possible. I am telling you this in true modesty. I am very glad it ended with zero hitches."
Olmert pressed you to run for president, did he not?
"'Pressured' is not the right word. He did suggest it to me and to others, such as [Meretz MK] Zahava Gal-On. I don't know how much Olmert thought that Peres was firm in his intention to run. I did know that Peres would run, so the idea [of also running] never crossed my mind."
Asked about whether she would consider running in the future, she says, "I would have answered differently a year ago, but after filling the post for half a year, I am ready to consider it. But have you heard anything about Peres vacating the post? When Peres' term ends and he runs for prime minister, I expect that I will run. Truthfully, the presidency was something I never thought of in the past."
Adds Itzik, hiding a smile: "I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you that some of my staff, headed by Avi Balashnikov [director general of the Knesset, who has worked with Itzik for many years], would always tell me, 'Dalia, you have to conclude as president.'"
What about the near future? The Knesset might be dissolved and elections could be held soon, and in the meantime Kadima is losing power and your position will not give you time to promote yourself politically.
"Regrettably, I hardly engaged - in fact, I did not engage at all - in politics during the past year. I didn't have a minute to do so. My view is that the position of speaker commits me to being particularly cautious, and all the more so when I was acting president. You are expected to adopt a state-oriented posture ... It is true that I chose to be a less political speaker, but that doesn't mean I have shed my opinions. I voice some of those opinions in backrooms. For example, I talk to the prime minister about the political process. But I don't make a public thing out of it and I try not to talk about controversial issues if I absolutely don't have to.
"Concerning Kadima," Itzik continues, "I think it is a real necessity. Not just a passing mood ... Today the coalition is very firm and does not want to dissolve itself. There is no reason for elections now. And I know that there are some who will react to what I am saying now by commenting, 'Ah, she has a motive.' This house is very political and people will always have something to say."
Still, while you are playing the state role, Tzipi Livni, for example, is working to strengthen her hold in Kadima and gain popularity. Is that a threat to you in any way?
"There is a big difference between me and Tzipi Livni. Tzipi declared that she wants to be prime minister, and I think she means what she says. I have never said anything like that, because that is not where I am. So I don't see any competition here. On the contrary: I see her as an asset to Kadima."
Are you not looking at the Labor Party out of the corner of your eye? Your good relations with Ehud Barak certainly won't hurt.
"I have very good relations with Barak. I talk to him relatively often and have very high regard for him. That said, I am in Kadima, although I hear that there are negotiations with members of Kadima to return to their previous parties. Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] is saying so outright with regard to the Likud. But these are rumors without the slightest foundation."
The 'husband of'
Itzik is at her heavy desk rifling through papers. "Festive premiere of Israeli film at Tel Aviv Museum," "Bar Association Conference," she reads out and tosses each item toward me. "Visit of parliamentarians, opening of the courts year, project of the Israel Cancer Association ... There is movement all the time," she says. "Condoleezza Rice, whom I have of course met with many times, Abu Mazen, Tony Blair - they do not skip the Knesset."
She falls silent and with her long, sharp fingernails, done in pearl-colored polish, picks up a piece of a grilled-cheese sandwich that has been placed on the desk. It consists of two pieces of whole-wheat diet bread and a slice of diet yellow cheese, with a few leaves of lettuce and some olives on the side. There are excellent olives in the Knesset.
To her left, just behind the red phone, are a number of family photos: of her children - Ran, Uri, and Adi - and her sisters. In the back is a photograph of Yitzhak Rabin. There is a picture of Itzik and Olmert, taken at the recent wedding of Ran, her eldest. Itzik has a very close relationship with her children, to all seven of her brothers and sisters, and above all to her mother, Marcelle.
"When I lit the torch on Independence Day this year, I chose to talk about my mother," she says, making an effort to control the trembling of her voice. "I called her before the ceremony and told her, 'Mother, I want you to turn on the television.' She replied, 'Of course, I will turn it on.' I told her: 'You will see me there, I am saying things about you, lighting a torch.' It was hard for me to explain it to her in Hebrew, and I am not fluent in Arabic. She said, 'But a candle is lit only when someone dies.' I said, 'No, Mother, watch closely, watch me.' Everyone told me not to talk about my mother, and I disagreed. My text was what I wrote spontaneously: about my mother, who fought like a lioness for my brothers and sisters. Whose story is like that of Israel, against all the odds.
"And I am glad I did it. It turns out that a mother is something very strong for a great many people. I was astounded by the number of people who responded to what I said about my mother. It's as though people, you know, don't expect you to say things like that. It's like something intimate: Why should your mother be of interest to us? And my mother cried so much afterward. She told me: 'A lot of people called, but you know, when we were poor we had no one.' I said, 'It's all right, Mother. People are calling, they are happy with you.'"
Itzik's husband, Danny, who works for the Electric Corporation, has never really found his place in his wife's political and diplomatic world, and rarely plays the role of "husband of." After the Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem, when the long and well-guarded convoy of the speaker left Mount Herzl, he waited a little and then escaped from the government car, which was surrounded by police. From there he preferred to walk back alone to their home in the Ramat Sharett neighborhood and to take in the famously clear Jerusalem air.
"He is a very modest person," Itzik smiles. "He doesn't even have a permanent entry pass to the Knesset. We have an understanding that when I very much want or need him to be by my side, I tell him so and he shows up. But if I don't tell him that it is very important for me, he won't be there. He was supposed to be present at the oath-taking ceremony of Shimon Peres as president, but Sonia [Peres' wife] didn't come, so I thought she would feel more comfortable if Danny didn't come, either."
In the past few years the media have made much of the revolution her appearance has undergone. "From duckling to swan," the women's magazine La'isha wrote last week, ranking Itzik among the country's 10 best-dressed women. Itzik gives the impression that she is pleased: "I happen to like ducks," she winks.
At the ceremony at which Peres took the oath of office, Itzik wore a white pants suit. One newspaper was critical of her choice. "The headline was 'Fashion pigua [the Hebrew word for "terrorist attack"] in the Knesset,'" Itzik relates, her expression contemptuous. The report noted that she had worn the same outfit not long before in a meeting with Prince Charles of England. "What do people expect - that I have a suit for every event? The article was critical of all the women, as though the occasion was a fashion show. Not one woman came out well. It's a bit funny that I attribute importance to this, but no man would ever have to take a remark like, 'How is it that he was seen twice in the same suit?' It's just that no man would ever have to take that."
It is difficult to think of another public figure of her standing who devotes so much attention to relations with the media and to monitoring information that is due to be published about her. Itzik will not allow her image to be shaped without intervening, steering, polishing - and having the last word. She invites many journalists for background briefings, reprimands, reconciliation, feedback, clarification, gossip and provocation. In such talks she will lower her voice and whisper offhandedly about how she recently chatted with the publisher or the chief editor or the former boss, whom she truly esteems - just so her interlocutors will know.
The process of discussing articles and interviews in advance with her can sometimes involve numerous, long meetings, with Itzik being joined by aides and sometimes by other emissaries as well. "She will use any lever," an experienced journalist smiles, almost in resignation. "She is very aggressive in these matters and will drive the whole world crazy ahead of even the smallest report that has anything to do with her: from the reporters to the editors to the owners of the media outlet. Others do not dare do what she does."
A senior editor describes the dynamics in the wake of information that recently came into his possession, which presented Itzik in a negative light. "I asked three reporters to check it out and they all refused," he says. "I was stunned. That never happened to me. One of the reporters simply pleaded: 'Drop it. Don't you know what she will do to me?' In the end, she started to check out the report, and when Itzik realized that she and her staff would not be able to block its publication, all the pressure began to be aimed at the editors. Innumerable phone calls and endless conversations. She called me personally, again and again. I had never come up against that kind of resistance. For a few hours I felt hounded like I had never been in my life."
Itzik has woven her extensive connections with the senior members of the Israeli media over many years, not least during her tenure as minister of communications: with Noni Mozes, the publisher of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth; Yochanan Tsangen, CEO of the Channel 2 franchisee Reshet, and Uzi Angel who holds the controlling interest in Reshet; Ron Leshem, in charge of programming at the other franchisee, Keshet; Avi Benayahu, until recently commander of Army Radio and now the IDF spokesman; and with just about everyone who counts in the industry. Of the senior journalists, Ben Caspit, the diplomatic correspondent for the daily Maariv, is particularly close to her, and both of them admit that they meet frequently. That did not prevent Caspit from publishing a somewhat critical, wide-ranging interview with Itzik a year ago. There were quite a few pieces in the same spirit.
Itzik can't understand the criticism. "I don't feel that my relations with the media are different from those of any other political person," she asserts. "Media and politics go together. It's like that everywhere and that is how it should be. I don't understand what the problem is, what you are trying to say. I don't feel that I have received special treatment.
"I am one of those who is very hurt when something is written about me which I feel I don't deserve. If I have done something wrong, it is the media's duty to publish something - that is their duty. But if something is written about me that I think is an invention, I am very hurt. I think that freedom of expression should not be accompanied by freedom of aggression and indiscretion. The media should be as critical of themselves as they insist on being critical of us.
"Now look, no one, for example, says or writes that the Knesset speaker has seven personal positions at her disposal but has filled only three of them. Do you know one person who would not have filled all seven jobs? I don't. How do I know? Because I was a minister three times. That is how I know. Do a survey, you will not find anyone. That is a tremendous saving. I am altogether miserly when it comes to public funds."
Last week you announced that you are relinquishing your demand to receive a car for life as part of your conditions after leaving your post as speaker.
"I decided not to do away with all the retirement benefits of former presidents and speakers of the Knesset, but rather to cut 80 percent. Remember, I am the first one in the history of the Knesset to effect such a cut. Former speakers were upset with me because of it, and when I couldn't reach an agreement with them, I decided unilaterally to implement it, starting with myself and including the car."
Javier Solana, the secretary general of the European Union's Council of Ministers and the EU's Middle East envoy, has been waiting for five minutes for the speaker, along with his staff and a herd of journalists on the other side of her bureau door. "They will wait five minutes and nothing will happen," Itzik tells her bureau chief, who is trying to get her to end this interview. It's important for Itzik to continue.
"A public person - what does he have other than his name? I am very happy that public figures are sensitive about their reputation. Journalists often ask me: Why are public figure so sensitive? Do you want us to have the hide of an elephant? Not to take into consideration what the media say? After all, what you want is for public figures to care what is said about them, for them to have the public's trust. Then why should we not get emotional about what is said about us? Why? It's good that we are moved by what is said about us. Especially when we labor so hard over our accomplishments." W