Knesset member Zeev Elkin (Likud Beitenu) plans on becoming prime minister. “It’s a long-term plan,” he said. “I’ve got time and patience. I need to gain more experience. I’m not one of those politicians who barely settle into the Knesset seats before announcing that they will be prime minister.” Elkin plans a stop on this long route: to serve as minister of education. Overtaking Avigdor Liberman as “the leading right-wing Russian” is a critical step on his way.
The interview with Elkin, 41, was conducted right before the swearing-in ceremony for the new Knesset, the third in which he will serve, at his home in the settlement of Kfar Eldad. The small settlement, of just over 100 families, is right on the very edge of the Judean Desert. It is so small that when you ask someone to place it for you, they say, “It’s near Hanokdim,” another small settlement that has gained notoriety thanks to the fact that it is where former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman lives. You reach both of the settlements by taking a relatively new road that bypasses Palestinian villages on the way and cuts travel time from Jerusalem to 25 minutes. In the local lingo, it is known as Liberman Road. Urban legend has it that the road was paved for the convenience of the chairperson of Israel Beiteinu. While driving down it, you pass by the Herodium, a military base that is very surprisingly positioned, as it is practically adjacent to a lovely Palestinian home, and it would appear that the two of them live exceedingly well side by side.
The Elkin family moved into their new home just a few months ago. Until that time, they lived in a cramped trailer, waiting for permits to build a permanent residence on the site. The problem was resolved when Minister of Defense Ehud Barak went to visit Elkin in the trailer following the death of his father. Barak, a gifted pianist, was sickened by the thought that water that was then leaking from the roof could damage the family’s piano. A short time later, Barak ordered permits be arranged for permanent homes for all families in the settlement. In exchange, he asked for a plaque that would read, “This piano was saved thanks to Ehud Barak.” Elkin said, “For me, this story embodies the very essence of Barak,” and proudly displays the plaque with the exact inscription.
At the very outset of the negotiations now under way to form the coalition, a political analyst on television defined Elkin, chairperson of the government coalition and highly active in the previous Knesset, as “the most important member of the outgoing Knesset.” Others call him the “most dangerous Knesset member.” Elkin is familiar with both definitions.
So what best describes you — important or dangerous?
“The two definitions are not mutually exclusive. I am, indeed, strong in the Knesset, but not because of power ploys. I am ‘goal-oriented.’ When I submitted the Anti-Boycott Law [bill, currently being heard by the High Court of Justice, that makes it possible to take away the right of organizations that participate in boycotts against Israel — including academic institutions and economic bodies — to participate in government tenders], they said that I was one of the smartest, and therefore most dangerous, members of Knesset. I’m generally described as an insipid person behind the scenes, who spins webs that entangle innocent Knesset members.”
You have made this insipidness an asset and sailed silently under the public radar for quite a long time. Last year, when you tried to pass a slew of laws that were designed to shake the Israeli democracy, you drew fire. A caricature in Haaretz portrayed you as a fascist solder, shining his boots on his way to trample democracy.
“This insipidness you speak of is truly an asset for me. I’m not insulted by the caricatures, although I truly disliked their anti-Semitic side. In some of them I am portrayed as a ghetto Jew with a long nose. For example, the reform of the judicial system designed to change the composition of the committee that selects Supreme Court justices.”
These laws, which have yet to pass, appear to be an organized assault on Israeli democracy.
“To the contrary. From a political perspective, this legislation has shown, for the first time in history that the right has decided not only to win the elections, but also to rule.”
In the attack on you, there were many motifs that brought up your “Russian” origin and the fact that you came to Israel only 20 years ago. They called you a “Bolshevik,” a “little Putin.” The message was, “How does this new Russian dare.”
“It is clear that racism is a component here. On the other hand, there is something of a Russian spirit to my activity that looks for a purpose, that demands reaching a goal, cares less about ‘what others say’ and is less dependent on deeply rooted taboos. When I submitted the Anti-boycott Law that is now being heard by the High Court of Justice, a friend called to congratulate me and said that this law would put me in the top ten of the Likud’s list for the primaries [which, in fact, happened], and such a second law will land me in jail. He warned me that while you can pass right-wing legislation in Israel, taking on the judicial system and demanding a hearing before appointment of justices to the Supreme Court - that’s dangerous. It’s a vengeful system. I reminded him that at the age of 19, I was the deputy head of the Jewish community of Ukraine and clashed with both the Russian mafia and the KGB - at the same time. Threats have no effect on me. They only make me dig in deeper.
At the time, Liberman suggested that anyone who was afraid that he would hurt democracy should “take Valium,” a sedative. Do you suggest the same?
“That’s the difference between Yvette [Avigdor] Liberman and me. I would never tell people to take Valium. I’ll explain that if they listen to me, their lives will be much more stable and more secure 20 years from now. It is actually the current representation on the Supreme Court that creates an overly large gap between the demographic composition of the Supreme Court and the demography of the Israeli society. The system is overly oligarchical, and it is actually what jeopardizes the status of the Supreme Court. However, I knew from the outset that this bill would not pass at this stage. In the future, I plan to continue with this legislation.
The comparison between you and Liberman comes up from time to time when they describe two power-oriented “Russians,” with similar attitudes toward democracy and the old elites. I assume that you are aware of the fact that you both are pegged in the same hole.
“There’s similarity. There was even a caricature that showed both of us operating on Israeli democracy. Our relationship has had its ups and downs. My sense is that he had a hard time dealing with a Russian-speaker playing in his court — the right-wing Russian court — who isn’t even a member of his party. We had a big fight in the Knesset over the question of who would handle relations with Russia. He’s not used to people messing with him. Today, we trust each other. With all the superficial similarity, there are major differences between us. The biggest difference is the fact that I’m Orthodox, which puts me in a different camp.”
You would appear to be the very reflection of the new elite: Russian, Orthodox and a settler. And despite this, are you sure that Israel is ready for a “Russian” prime minister?
“Let me remind you that I’m talking about a long-term plan. Your question is complex, and you might be right that we’re still not ready for a ‘Russian.’ But today, I’m characterized more as ‘Orthodox’ than ‘Russian.’ The country may also not be ready yet for an Orthodox prime minister, but anyone who looks at the data on first graders today, will see in what direction Israeli society is going. So your question relates both to demography and maturity, and both are moving in the same direction. Within the right-wing bloc, there are currently 15 ‘Russian’ Knesset seats. The old secular, left-wing elite is losing its majority. It’s frightened. In fact, I have an advantage in the long run.”
This clear plan could throw a monkey wrench into [President] Obama’s visit to Israel. He likely wants to see movement in the peace process. You yourself said in 2006, when you were a Knesset member from Kadima [party], that Netanyahu would give up parts of the Land of Israel in exchange [for peace]. Do you still think so?
“No. I jeopardized my career and my status among Russian speakers when I moved from Kadima to the Likud so that Bibi would be prime minister. While I came out against the Bar-Ilan speech, where the prime minister spoke of two states, he is still my preferred prime minister. A two-state solution is purely a theoretical dispute among Jews, and it would be a mistake for the right to break apart over this. As I see it, Obama is not coming to argue, but to embrace. I might be more concerned about the embrace than the argument.”
Liberman always says that he would be willing to vacate his settlement for real peace. And you?
“I don’t believe in real peace.”
Lily Galili was a Haaretz senior feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and an expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union for over 28 years. Her book The Million that Changed the Middle East (co-authored with R. Bronfman) has been recently published in Hebrew.