An Interview with Israeli Politician Ophir Pines-Paz

by Matt B. on November 13, 2010

Ophir Pines-Paz served in the Israeli Knesset from 1996-2010.  He also served as a cabinet minister in both the Sharon and the Olmert governments.  From 2001-2003 he was General Secretary of the Labor Party.

In January of this year – after 15 years in the Knesset – you resigned with some pretty strong words about what your party had become and the direction of the country. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the events and the thinking what led up to that moment for you.

Yes, sure. Actually, by the way, if you are looking at the whole process, you can see that it become even harder since I left. I mean, it didn’t recover itself but quite the contrary. So, the main thing is that after we lost the elections, I was sure that the Labor Party should serve the people from the opposition because we lost the elections. The right-wing in Israel had the majority so let them rule.

On the other hand, what my friends have decided to do is to accept Netanyahu’s offer and get into this very right-wing coalition. I was sure that it’s going to be a major mistake that can ruin the Labor Party in such a way that it will never be able to govern from that, and I said it loud and clear. Our conference that decided about the whole thing, I said, “The Labor Party is going to commit suicide. Are you a crazy people? You’re going to commit suicide. You’re going to kill yourself. You’re crazy.” I mean, some of them listened to me, obviously, and they voted against the whole thing but the majority voted for them.

So, they entered the government. I was offered to serve as a minister in the Netanyahu cabinet. I totally refused doing so. I stayed at the Knesset…but I had to participate at the coalition even if I’m not the minister. The fact that the Labor Party participated in coalition, it means that I am also, as a member of that faction, I have to obey the coalition. I really couldn’t live with that for long because, you know, it was impossible for me, so I found myself in very problematic situations on a daily basis.

Eventually, I’ve decided that it goes nowhere so I’m just wasting my time and I cannot do that. In this very system, you cannot just leave your party and the coalition and move to the opposition because it’s against the law. In America, you might do that but that’s a different system because in America, you are being elected by yourself. In Israel, you are elected inside the list of candidates so in order to leave, you need to have at least one third and we couldn’t achieve one third of the faction to leave. So in that case, I took a decision to leave by myself and to resign from the Knesset and resign from the Labor Party – I left the Labor Party altogether.

It sounded like when you left, you thought there might be a possibility for you to achieve more of your political goals outside the Knesset and outside the party. Have you found the last ten months or so-?

Well, I wasn’t sure about that, when I left politics, because at the end of the day, the main place to exercise politics is the Knesset, the parliament. You cannot replace that easily, so I wasn’t sure about that. But I was sure that I cannot represent the right-wing the way that I want to represent people by sitting in the Knesset, caught in the coalition, and have a little influence on what’s going on.

And I have to tell you that some ten months later or something like that, I feel even stronger about that. I think that the Labor Party, at the last 10 months, becomes even worse, so I have no regrets on that aspect. So what I did since, I immediately went to teach. I’m teaching now at IDC….It’s the best college in Israel. I’m teaching also at Tel-Aviv University….

You said things have gotten worse and I imagine that at least part of what you’re referring to is the push within the Netanyahu government for a loyalty oath and perhaps the boycott prohibitions and things like that – I’m wondering if you can say a little about those and particularly about what you think it will take, if anything, to reverse that impulse in-

Well, you heard about Rabin, I presume. This week, we are marking the fact that he was assassinated some 15 years ago. So, I think that since then, our democracy, you know, it’s not only that Rabin got killed. I think that our democracy got killed with him – not totally but it got hurt a lot and this loyalty test is a very good example. This loyalty test totally contradicts Rabin legacy and Rabin way of thinking.

If a country wants to achieve the loyalty of its citizens, which is, of course, legitimate, you don’t do it by law. If you want to do it really, it has to come from the heart and the people have to feel that they are equal and they get the same rights and the same treatment like any other. I mean, they must feel like equal citizens – that’s the main thing.

By the way, that was the strategy of Rabin. While Rabin was prime minister, he tried to bridge the gaps between Arabs and Jews in Israel. He tried to allocate monies from one place of Israel to the other place in order to give them a real opportunity to be and feel and live like equal citizens, which we want them to be, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s the challenge, you know, to do it even though we cannot solve the conflict or we didn’t yet solve the conflict….

Then, if you are looking at the peace process itself, you’re watching the current peace talks between President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Abbas, you’ll see that unfortunately, it doesn’t lead nowhere. I mean, it’s stuck and it starts from the very beginning. It starts from the very beginning, because you don’t have those kinds of energies that we used to have in previous times, for instance, between President Carter and President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and between Rabin and King Hussein and President Clinton. You know, you don’t feel that they’re doing it for real. It’s like they want to talk just for the sake of talking, not for the sake of getting a result – a real result. That’s frustrating for somebody like me because I feel that Netanyahu is manipulating the Labor Party in order to get the legitimation to do nothing. I think the public is going to punish the Labor Party a great deal.

I think that the Labor Party, you know, it’s like Democrats and Republicans. Okay, it’s not the same system; it’s totally different. But still, think about the situation [if] the Republicans lost the elections to President Obama and then, they kind of joined his administration. It’s ridiculous. But that’s exactly what the Labor Party did, and the minute they did that, in a way, they surrendered.

In other words, what they said to the public is, “Listen, we don’t have any answers for you and for your questions. We basically support the other side.”

For at least some folks in the US, I think there’s some confusion as to why the left response to some of these really antidemocratic measures coming out of the Netanyahu government hasn’t been stronger. And I guess for me, I’m curious to know whether you think there are things that can be done within Israel to strengthen the resistance to some of these antidemocratic-

I tell you this, what happened in Israel, the left in Israel almost disappeared. It almost doesn’t exist. That’s also because of the Labor Party because the Labor Party was supposed to lead the left in Israel. The minute that you are not doing that and you’re collaborating to the other side- why an average voter of the left in Israel should vote for the left if the left doesn’t vote for itself? I mean, it’s ridiculous. So that’s what happened.

There is no real strong voice that can represent those values and those principles in the right manner. There are many leftist in Israel but they are not strong enough. They are too weak in order to do something significant that can make a difference. That’s the problem.

Last Thursday in The New York Times, you may have read, Roger Cohen wrote, “This is the last best chance for peace in the foreseeable future. It demands immense courage and some risk-taking on both sides. So it will almost certainly fail.” I’m wondering whether you think there’s anything that can be done to prevent these peace talks from failing and, I suppose, what your hope for the landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to look like, say, in ten years, or the landscape in Israeli and Palestine to look like in ten years.

It’s two different questions.

Yeah, I suppose it is.

Well, I don’t want to cry about spilled milk, you know. It’s useless so I won’t look back. I just will try to concentrate on looking forward.

I really think that what is needed now is to try and build a strategy and a vision that is more than two-state solution. To say it’s two-state solution in the year 2010, it’s not enough. It’s the basic. You cannot get from there nowhere. You have to be much more specific about the real issues, about the borders, about Jerusalem, about the settlements, about the settlers, about the refugees – about everything.

You know, you cannot just start negotiation by accepting one thing – two-state solution. That’s not enough. Before you start to talk, you need to do some pre-things in order to narrow the gaps between the parties; otherwise, you will get nowhere.

I know that Senator Mitchell tried to do that for a long time and he didn’t succeed, so, maybe we should try and look for other directions or other means. But that’s the main thing. You cannot just get up one early morning and say, “Okay, now, we’re going to have a summit,” or “Now, in the meantime, we’re going to have a peace treaty.”  We won’t.  We won’t because we need more than that in order to get there.

The question is: If we- you know, Netanyahu has the political power to do it. The question is if he has the political will. That’s a big, big question.

About Abbas, well, I think that he has the political will but I’m not sure that he’s got the political power because you’ll figure what’s going on with the Gaza Strip and the Hamas. Well, I’m not sure that he’s able to deliver.

President Obama has – I don’t know if I should use the expression ‘has’ or ‘had.’ I’m not sure about that. No, really, because he had a great potential to make a difference in the region because:  1) I think that the Arab people, in large, not only Palestinians, I think that they rely on him more than they relied on former American presidents. As an Israeli Jew, I see it as an advantage because at the end of the day, we need to compromise from both sides – not only from our side. Okay, we are, let’s say, stronger so we have to compromise more, but they will have to compromise as well. So you need someone that they can trust that can bring them there. So that’s why I’m saying that.

I’m not sure that he still has it but I do know that he lost lots of credibility at the Israeli side and the American side as well.

Because of the recent –

America’s a different story. America he lost credibility because of other things, but it has also influenced the process as well, so you cannot ignore that. You cannot isolate it.

And you know, when you want to have peace, I think that you need at least those three leaders in the best shape. If you’re looking backwards and see how they did well in victory, you could see, you could tell that it’s mainly a leadership thing, when the leaders decided for their people to go forward and then the people follow them, not the other way around. So that’s important. I’m not sure that you have it right here, but yeah, that’s it, basically.

So on that point…you served as Minister of Science, Culture and Sport under the Olmert Administration.

Yes.

I’m wondering, in your capacity as having served as Minister of Culture, whether you think something more grassroots-driven, something more people-driven, or something, say, like a boycott of some kind from Americans or folks elsewhere might be an effective or useful way to reign in some of the more aggressive tactics that Netanyahu and Lieberman have pursued of late.

Listen, first of all, I resigned from Olmert’s government because he entered Lieberman into the coalition into the government. I decided to leave. I tried to ask, convey my colleagues at the Labor Party to do the same and not let it happen but unfortunately, I couldn’t. So I decided to leave myself, because I didn’t want to give Lieberman the legitimation that he needed that much from the Labor Party and unfortunately he got it. By the way, that’s one of the reasons why he become that popular at the last elections. That’s my belief.

Returning to your specific question, I would say that boycott is something that is totally unacceptable. I think that that’s not the way to achieve anything. To try and boycott Israel – I think it’d terrible. I think it’s something that shouldn’t be done, not by America – of course, not by America. That is our great friend and ally, and the last 62 years, we shared a lot. That, for sure, is not the way – not for America, but also not for other countries.

I think that the government of Israel is doing mistakes here and there, for sure, but at the end of the day, when you’re looking at it the right perspective, it’s still a very- in the last 62 years, we accomplished a lot as a Jewish democratic state and we contributed a lot, not only to ourselves but to the world in large and into the region. And don’t forget that we do have two peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which we compromised a lot on them. So it’s a two-way street; it’s not a one-way street. So we should bear that in mind.

I want to believe and I do believe that it’s possible to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine. I think it’s doable. I’m sure it’s very important, and I’m sure that we’re wasting valuable time, I’m sure all of us. We have to try and tackle it the right way.

I think that Obama was right by putting that issue as an important issue on his priorities, and the fact that he started to deal with the conflict in the early stage of his term, is the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean that immediately everything gets okay, unfortunately. I think that after he had his speech in Cairo, it would be good if he would pay a visit to Israel as well. I think that was something that was needed to do and he didn’t.

But after saying that, I have to tell you that I have full confidence on President Obama. I’m sure that he cares about Israel, and I’m sure that he wants the best for Israel, as he wants the best for the region and for the other countries. And he believes that a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is best to Israel, and I think the same, by the way. I think that is something that is very important to Israel itself, regardless of Palestinians that – we have to help them, as well, but I look at it, as an Israeli – as a patriot Israeli – I feel that is the most important thing for Israel.

I believe that Obama respects Israel and he’s got a very strong connection to Israel, as other and former presidents before him, Democrats and Republicans. In that way, I don’t think that he’s any different than any other. I think that he’s able to succeed more than the others on the Palestinian issue. Listen, I hope there’s still time. I hope that we’ll be able to do that. Now he’s bothered with the November elections. Of course, that is also kind of a barrier.

Sure.

But let’s hope for the best, you know. We tried many times and didn’t succeed, but maybe next time, or maybe this time isn’t the end yet.

Well, last one then. If you got to sit down with just Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas and got to ask each of them to make a concession that you thought would advance the peace process, what would you ask of each of them?

That’s a good question.

Abbas – he must let go of the refugee thing because, not that we don’t have to solve the refugee problem. Don’t get me wrong on that. We have, but not get them back to the state of Israel because that would be the end of the state of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Of course, then we’ll have a Palestinian majority. Then, instead of a two-state solution, we’ll have two Palestinian states, and that’s not what it’s all about. So, we have to admit. We have to solve the refugee problem in the Palestinian state instead with, of course, some territories that we will have to swap, territories between them and us in order to help them to absorb all of them and let them stay in the settlements that we will leave there for – that can be for them as well, and with the extra money that we will be able to give, and the world, but we should solve the refugee problem definitely, but not at the state of Israel because this is something that we cannot accept.

We shouldn’t accept it not because that they don’t have personal tragedies – they have, those refugees. And we should be very sensitive to that but – there’s a big but – because if we’re going to do it at the state of Israel, that’s the end of it. Then, we will have two Palestinian states, period.

What should I say to Netanyahu? I would say to Netanyahu- actually, I have many things to say to Netanyahu. You want me to choose only one?

Well, we have three problems: the borders, the settlements, and Jerusalem. Okay, leave the refugees – that’s the biggest problem that I cannot help. Sorry….I said what I had to say. So if I have to choose one issue…I would say ‘67 borders plus a swap of territories, 7.5-8%, you know, I agree to that. And of course, stop building immediately; that’s the most urgent thing to do.

Why did you stop the moratorium? You know, it’s so absurd. You started to freeze the building in the settlements in order to create or to establish the right atmosphere in order for the parties to get back into the negotiation table. So the minute they did that, you rebuild again. It’s unbelievable.

That’s something that he must- I think that we must start building and creating new facts in the settlements during the negotiations, for sure – during the talks. That’s a must. That’s my first advice [for] Netanyahu.

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