One thing you can bet on: whatever else happens, the Labor Party will be the most interesting party in the next election. Whether party chairwoman manages to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whether Tzipi Livi or Yair Lapid steals seats from Yachimovich, or whether the Labor Party becomes the trend, it won't be dull.
"We want elections. The Labor Party is ready and willing," says party leader Shelly Yachimovich in an interview with "Globes". "What's more, I don't think that the State of Israel can afford more aimlessness. In effect, we have been in an intense election campaign for six months, without a state budget and without an election date. So I say, let's have lections, let's allow the public to decide."
According to the opinion polls, you are number 2 in projected Knesset seats. Will you join a Netanyahu government, assuming he is the one forming it?
"I don't accept this basic assumption. I am challenging Netanyahu, and our goal at present is to defeat Netanyahu and to form a government that will replace the Likud government. I know that it's hard, and I am completely aware of Netanyahu's political strength. I don't dismiss him and I don't underestimate him."
Is such an ambition realistic?
"I have been very careful all along to stay in touch with reality. Before the primaries for the leadership of the Labor Party, they told me 'You are the candidate for prime minister.' I said, 'That's ridiculous. The Labor Party, with four-five Knesset seats in the polls must first of all rehabilitate itself; it must undergo a long process of internal, organizational and ideological rebuilding to restore public faith. I set a goal of being the leading party in the left block. After that, I set a goal of being the second largest party and narrowing the gap with Netanyahu. Now, when the public says what it thinks so clearly and puts its faith in the Labor Party's program and in me as the person heading it, the chance of defeating Netanyahu exists, is not very low, it's possible, and I say all the time that Netanyahu is not an anointed monarch. No scepter descended from above and invested him with the glory of leadership."
He may not have been anointed king, but according to all the polls, he is in the lead.
"Tue. But I say to you that it is certainly possible to defeat Netanyahu, and I will be glad if in the next interview you conduct with the prime minister you ask him whether he will be prepared to join my government."
Let's assume that, for all that, he will form the government. Will you sit in his government?
"The likelihood is very low. But I will certainly not get myself into a position in which I announce now with whom I will join and with whom not, although there are those who very much want me to. I won't rule out any person or party. I will be wherever my program, the program I lead, of sanity, of social democracy, of fair distribution of resources, can prevail.
"And it's important for me to say another thing. They say about politicians that they talk a lot, and promise many promises. I have yet to be caught failing to fulfill a promise. I want to be judged by what I have done. And I want to remind people that after the last elections, when the Labor Party under Ehud Barak rushed into Netanyahu's arms, I fought with all my might for it not to happen. Then Barak called me and offered me the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio, and I refused to be a minister in his government, even though I was a beginner politician and this was a dream come true. I want the public to trust me to do the right thing."
The Labor Party was a corpse that kept on rotting as the years went by. How did you revive it?
"Barak deserves a big thank you for leaving. No politician who did something so bad has ever done anything so good for his party. Amazing."
You mentioned social democracy. Does being Minister of Finance appeal to you?
"I am steering my party towards forming the government, and so I have no intention of getting into the question of what job I will take. It's no secret that I put economic and social affairs at the top of my agenda. That's why I entered politics, that's the platform on which I was elected leader of the Labor Party, very openly. I didn't try to sell other agendas. And that is the platform on which the Labor Party will return to power."
What is your social democratic vision?
"Social democracy is a sane balance between, on the one hand, a free market in which there is competition and wealth creation, in which there is enterprise, in which wealth is welcomed as long as it creates jobs and does real things, and, on the other hand, a government that rules. Unfortunately, we have lost this balance, and both Israel and the world are sobering up. And if up until now everyone bowed three times a day before the leveraged private sector and turned Nochi Dankner and Tshuva and Leviev into their absolute gods in all areas of life, today people understand that the time of the state has come, and to a very large extent, and I hear this from economists around the world. The turn of the state has come to make itself felt, and not to allow an unbridled jungle. We see this jungle now blowing up in our faces."
You mentioned the tycoons, but one of the arguments raised against you is that such statements are very populist, and their only aim is to generate capital for yourself, political capital of course.
"I said these things and fought these battles when they were extremely unpopular. I was alone in this arena, previously as a journalist on Channel 2 News and afterwards as a politician alone in the wilderness. In sessions of the Knesset Finance Committee I was the only one to point out the irresponsible dividend drawings that left companies controlled by the wealthy magnates denuded of their assets; I warned about the Ganden-IDB deal when no-one else bothered about it.
"I am prepared to debate the principle, the question whether I am right or not. But I must ask that my motives should not be impugned. Because I started out on this path when I was completely alone and there was no dividend. Take for example the bill, which unfortunately did not pass its second and third readings, to restrict senior management salaries. The first time I submitted it in the Knesset was four years ago. They called it monstrous, ridiculous, wicked, and crazy. The years went by, and suddenly there's a consensus in Israel and globally that it's inconceivable that senior managers salaries should reach one and a half million shekels a month with no connection to reality. So I feel that I am blazing a trail here. I'm not going somewhere popular, I'm going to the place I think is right."
The country is going backwards
Let's talk about a sector that you defend, the public sector. It is claimed against you that this defense of the public sector is liable to send the country deteriorating into a crisis similar to what has happened in some countries in Europe. Aren't you worried about this?
"Let's talk about facts. Civilian government spending in Israel per capita is the lowest among the OECD countries. Not the highest, not in the middle, the lowest. In other words, our government is the least involved in the lives of our citizens among all the most capitalist governments. What does that mean in practice? I'm sure that a very large proportion of those who read this interview have both supplementary and private health insurance. Why is this happening? Because the government has gone backwards. Why are we spending huge sums on educating our children? Those who can do, and the children of those who can't receive a worse education. Because the state has retreated. I'm talking about the balance between the state's responsibility and the private sector.
"Today, the procedure for firing public servants is very easy. The erosion of the status of social workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, is an erosion of the state. A strong public sector with good salaries is in the interests of all of us."
You know that Prime Minister Netanyahu was interviewed by "Globes" recently and said that your policies would lead to 25% unemployment, a million unemployed?
”First of all, that’s sheer impudence. He talks as though I have been in power for two terms and caused a million unemployed. Why a million? Why not a billion? What is this irresponsible talk, this blatant nonsense? Really. Let’s talk about Greece and Spain. In Spain there was actually a very tight budget, and control over the level of spending, but there was a crazy real estate bubble that toppled the market. What left Greece completely without revenues and without any cushion of stability was a very very dramatic reduction in companies tax, and corruption in the public sector. In our case, the public sector, which everyone loves to besmirch, is far less corrupt than what happens with leveraged capital. Let anyone try. I don't call for any crime to be committed. But let anyone try to bribe a public official; within a second they'll call the police. From this point of view, we're a very clean country, so the comparison with Greece and Spain is baseless scaremongering. And I expect the prime minister, who knows something about economics, not to use scare tactics divorced from reality, because it shows that he simply holds the public's intelligence in contempt."
Whichever way you look at it, Netanyahu is right in saying that since 2008 the world has been battered by economic storms of greater or lesser intensity, but Israel, all in all, has been an island of stability. You can't argue with that.
"The question is, what is economics? Is economics a mathematical formula lying outside the dimensions of time and space?
Economics is measures of unemployment, of growth.
"Let's talk about measures. Israel constantly swaps places with Mexico and a few other countries between first and fourth for inequality between its citizens. In Israel, public spending per capita is among the lowest in the world. Poverty rates are very high. We have a wonderful country. We have a country with a good basis that the founders built, of solidarity, of a health system that still functions not badly, of an education system that still functions not badly.
"In the end, when you look at the situation of the individual person and the family unit, employment security has become much weaker, and the day-to-day existence of the citizens of the State of Israel has become very problematic. Economics is meant to serve human beings."
But we still do not have 25% unemployment like some of the countries we mentioned earlier, but just 7%.
"There is one extremely important fact. In Israel, unemployment rates are indeed relatively low. But in Israel, half the people who work are poor. This means that you have a great mass of people who go to work in the morning, return at night, work as long as they have breath, and remain very very poor. I think that this is as uneconomic as can be. Because in the end raising the spending and earning power of the citizens of the State of Israel is what will rescue us from deflation. This is what will drive the economy. And I believe that the choice is not between a concentrated economy under total government control and crazy Darwinism and a jungle in which there is no protection for the middle class and the weak. I believe in this happy synthesis."
When we talked about Spain earlier, you said that there was a real estate bubble there. Have you any idea how to solve the problem of the cost of housing in Israel?
"There's no choice, the government must come in as a significant player in construction."
In construction, and not just in freeing up land?
"Not just in freeing up land. On the contrary, impossible things are going on here. There are enough empty housing units that are not being sold, and land with planning permission that is not utilized. To release land cheaply without making it a condition that at the end of the process there will be affordable housing is something irresponsible that again enriches a very small group. At the beginning of the 1990s, there was a policy here of construction for the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, and this is exactly where the government needs to step in actively. Think also what prosperity it would generate."
We have talked a great deal here about economic and social affairs. We both know that in the end the election campaign will be about security, presumably about Iran.
"I disagree with you. Because you base yourself on the past. And we live in a completely different era today. It's true that in the past the trumpet sounded and called those in the right to the right and those on the left to the left. These borders between the political right and left have become very blurred."
True. But Iran is on the agenda.
"There's always something on the agenda. We are a country replete with wars. We really are a small country surrounded by security threats. There have always been security threats. Unfortunately, they are the air we breathe, but nevertheless there is something that the public now understands, which is that security is not enough, because you also need security in your livelihood, and a roof over your head and food on the table, and good education for you children, and safety in the streets, and all these things will be part of the set of considerations of the voter in the polling booth, because the Israeli public has undergone a very dramatic change in this respect, and this is one of the reasons that it expresses faith in me so intensely."
It could be that Netanyahu understands what you are saying, but that from his point of view the right tactic is to drag the discussion to security matters, and not to the economy.
"Maybe. I'm not Netanyahu's political commentator. I trust the intelligence of the public, and that it will expand its range of reasons for voting. I also expect, for the first time in the history of elections in Israel, for a vote that isn't by blocks, according to political right or left, but a vote that also takes into account social and economic ideology."
Have you noticed that we have conducted a long conversation without once mentioning the settlements, the territories, or the Palestinians? Why don't you like talking about this subject?
"It's not true. You are welcome to ask any question, and I will give you a direct answer. I do put the social and economic agenda first. That is why I went into politics. This is what I want the election campaign to be about. I think that we have sorely neglected Israeli society because of the obsessive concern only with political right and left. I aspire to peace. I believe in two states for two peoples. Without going into details, I believe that the permanent settlement should be sketched more or less according to the Clinton outline, on which there is very broad consensus among the Israeli public. And I promise you that if and when I am elected prime minister, the diplomatic agenda will not be neglected, rather the contrary."
This interview was published in "Globes" in Hebrew on October 4, 2012.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 10, 2012
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012