Miki Haimovich has been watching with interest in recent weeks as the coronavirus panic has brought concerns about the country’s health, welfare and environment infrastructure to the fore – and very much onto her turf.
The former television journalist-turned-politician is the highest-ranked woman on the slate of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. She thinks the current government’s patchwork preparedness for the unexpected rapid spread of a potentially fatal virus parallels its deficiencies in dealing with environmental issues.
“When we think about what will happen if there’s a truly big epidemic, we are dealing with how our country is able to plan for and cope with any kind of large-scale problem or disaster,” exclusive of military conflicts. “Talk about life and death!” she tells Haaretz over coffee in her central Tel Aviv apartment.
Haimovich, 57, has crisscrossed the country ever since Israel’s unprecedented election cycle began at the end of 2018: A political novice a year ago, the country’s political version of “Groundhog Day” – three general elections in the space of 11 months, culminating (perhaps) with Monday’s election – has turned her into an experienced campaigner.
Her conclusion: “The environment is something where you really need to look ahead, beyond the here and now. And I’ve found that Israel is very weak when it comes to any kind of long-term planning and preparation.”
Haimovich says she is determined to change all that, particularly when it comes to confronting the climate crisis. The purpose of her travels, in addition to wrangling votes for Kahol Lavan, has been to educate herself in preparation for the job she has been promised if Gantz’s party manages to form a governing coalition: environmental protection minister.
Traditionally, the job of heading the environment ministry hasn’t been a goal Israeli politicians have aspired to. It has been more of a consolation prize; a perch on which ambitious politicians bide their time, impatiently dreaming of more prestigious posts. For Haimovich, though, the job is her ultimate aspiration and the condition on which she agreed to join Gantz’s new Israel Resilience Party just a year ago (before it merged with Yesh Atid and Telem to create Kahol Lavan).
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It was the final step in a personal journey that began in 2011 when she stepped down from her post as a popular TV news anchor, hoping to somehow change the world instead of simply reporting on those making changes.
“If you’re famous, popular and powerful, where you have a lot of experience and credibility and don’t take advantage of that position and use it to do something good, you’re completely wasting it,” she declares.
Haimovich was born and raised in Tel Aviv, and worked as an El Al flight attendant while getting her bachelor’s degree in political science. Her career took shape when she starting watching the evening news during her layovers in New York. “I remember seeing the female anchors in America and saying, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Her problem: there weren’t any such positions back home in the 1980s. On the single state channel at the time, the main news anchors were always male, with the few women on the air relegated to secondary status. “There wasn’t just a glass ceiling to break through – it was a cement ceiling,” Haimovich reflects.
Bent on a career in television, she took behind-the-scene jobs with the state broadcaster, finally getting in front of the camera when cable television brought local news to Israel. And then, in 1993, she rocketed to national fame as co-anchor of the newborn Channel 2 evening newscast – the first time male and female co-anchors had shared a news desk. All told, she spent 18 years as the face of evening news in Israel: nine years at Channel 2 and nine more at the country’s third outlet, Channel 10.
But in 2011, after many years in front of the camera through wars, terror attacks and epochal events like the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, she decided she’d had enough.
“I had given it my all, and I was done,” she says. What pushed her over the edge was the Mount Carmel forest fire, near Haifa, in December 2010, which claimed 44 lives. “I sat there for three days covering the catastrophe – watching all the politicians and seeing that nobody was taking any real responsibility. I felt frustration for the country and for myself, and I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. So I ignored all the advice that you don’t walk away from the kind of top job I had – and I left,” she explains.
At the time, she knew she wanted to parlay her fame and credibility into fomenting meaningful change. But she wasn’t sure how to do it.
She found her cause when the radical group Anonymous for Animal Rights, who had heard she was vegetarian, approached her about doing a documentary. The documentary was never made, but one idea they discussed was the possibility of starting a local campaign for Meatless Monday – the weekly public health awareness program that began in the United States in 2003.
Hearing the idea “was like a light bulb lit up over my head, like you see in cartoons,” she recalls.
While at the helm of the Meatless Monday nonprofit she established, Haimovich made the move from vegetarian to vegan. In addition, her animal activism widened to environmental activism, as she studied and attended international conferences focused on the growing dangers to the environment due to pollution and climate change.
“When you’re exposed to all of this information intensively, two things can happen to you: You can cover your eyes and ears, decide you don’t want to know, don’t want to deal with it, decide you’re too small and powerless to really change anything, and put it aside. Or you become obsessive.”
She smiles. “I’m obviously in the second category.”
After a return to television, helming a news show that focused on social welfare issues and, prominently, the environment, she was ready for her next step.
In the past she had ruled out the idea of going into politics. But when former army general Gantz invited her to join his new party, she sensed an opportunity. “I saw that Benny could really be an alternative. Until now, there wasn’t really anybody who could threaten [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.” From that first meeting, she says, she defined her terms: “I made it very clear what I wanted to do, where my interests lay, and exactly what ministry I wanted.”
The centrist nature of the party suits her, she says. “I am a person who resists going to the extremes – and that’s why Kahol Lavan is a good political home for me.” She toes the party line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressing support for Gantz’s position on retaining the major settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, while actively seeking a peace agreement “even though at the moment we don’t really have a partner.”
Much has been made of the conflicting ideologies under the Kahol Lavan umbrella. When asked about it, Haimovich acknowledges that her party contains “people who don’t agree on everything.” However, she puts a positive spin on that, saying it should serve as an example of noncombative political back-and-forth and willingness to compromise.
“I think it’s important that we are able to talk and discuss things we don’t agree on: I might argue with those in the party who are further to the right than I am. But at least I’m having a dialogue with them,” she says.
Haimovich is aware that hers is the most prominent female face in a political party with a very male, even macho, image thanks to the quartet of men at the top: three ex-army generals in Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon, along with her former Channel 2 colleague Yair Lapid.
The party has been criticized for the absence of women in its upper echelons and the perception that it has strategically placed attractive candidates like Haimovich in “decorative” secondary positions – not unlike the female news anchors of yore.
Haimovich resists the characterization but acknowledges the problem, which she says stems from the party’s evolution as an alliance of three male-led parties. “But I don’t feel like a decoration,” she asserts. “I feel like I have a powerful and meaningful position.” Gantz, she adds, has “promised to fix” the imbalance, if elected, with his choice of ministers and director generals. If Kahol Lavan is currently perceived as lacking women at the top, she says, she doesn’t think it will stay that way.
Addressing the larger problem of the dearth of women in Israeli politics, she recalls the early days of forming the party when she was involved in recruiting leadership.
“I spoke with many strong women who I hoped would join us, and they said no,” Haimovich relays. “There is something in the world of Israeli politics that repels many women. They hesitate to be in the public eye and the price you have to pay dealing with having dirt thrown at you. It’s really a shame.”
She believes this atmosphere has only intensified in the Netanyahu era, noting that the “divisiveness and hate” has harmed both politics and society at large. “The way in which Netanyahu has promoted delegitimizing people because they believe something different from you has eaten away at our society,” Haimovich says. “It is sabotaging and destroying us and hurting us, and causing more damage than our external enemies ever can.”
She is also insistent that her pet issue is no mere decoration and that her party’s top leaders take climate change as seriously as she does. If they didn’t a year ago, she has made sure they do now.
Harnessing the sun
Early in her short political career, Haimovich had to face criticism that, if she had her way, Israel’s offshore natural gas reserves would be left in the ground. This conflicted directly with Gantz’s desire to use state profits from natural gas exports to fund key social welfare projects.
She says that while in an ideal world she would have prioritized developing renewable sources of energy over extracting the gas, she is “realistic” about the fact that the deal to export natural gas (to Egypt and Jordan) was done.
“Look, it’s very important that Israel found the gas. It promises us energy independence, and we are no longer dependent on buying coal and oil from overseas,” she says. “But in an era of climate crisis globally, we know we have to move to renewable energy and the gas has to be used as transitional energy on the way to developing renewable sources. We have so much sun in this country. I believe we can get to 40 to 50 percent solar energy power in Israel by 2030 if we manage it correctly.”
Expanding the use of solar energy is just one issue Haimovich has been intensively developing with experts – most prominently Alon Tal, a Tel Aviv University professor, pioneering veteran environmental activist and former leader of the Green Party. Together, Haimovich and Tal have drawn up a detailed program for the first 100 days should she get the ministry she desires.
Tal, who has worked with every environment minister since the job was first created in 1988, sees the prospect of Haimovich in the position as a historic opportunity.
“Sadly, it has been a decade since we had a minister who had even a thimble-full of interest in this country’s ecological challenges,” Tal says. “And this is reflected in Israel’s pitiful environmental performance – from solid waste to biodiversity protection, to greenhouse gas mitigation. Miki has gotten so many of us in the environmental community excited because she is ‘all in.’ She decided to make the leap into politics so she could make some fundamental changes – and I’m sure she will.”