“Abu Mazen is a political corpse,” said Deputy Minister of the Interior and Knesset member Faina Kirshenbaum in an interview with Al-Monitor.
For more than 10 years, Kirshenbaum has served as the secretary-general of Yisrael Beiteinu party, and she is considered a confidante of party leader, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. She wholeheartedly adopts Liberman’s political line regarding the conflict and particularly his position on Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen — which he has been voicing consistently in recent years: “He’s irrelevant.”
We met in her office at the Interior Ministry on Tuesday, June 25. The night before, rocket fire from Gaza toward the towns in southern Israel had resumed, and on June 27, US Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Israel for another round of talks.
But Kirshenbaum isn’t waiting for him. Even now, it is clear to her that the rocket fire is related to the reports that negotiations would be getting back underway soon. “These are their internal issues. They’re letting Abu Mazen know that they’ll be calling the shots, that they have the power and he isn’t authorized to negotiate on their behalf.” Kirshenbaum identifies with Liberman’s reaction after the rocket fire; he said that Israel has no choice but to conquer Gaza. “As long as Hamas is in there and gaining strength, we don’t have anyone to talk to.”
Kirshenbaum was not the only coalition member who has been releasing lately diplomatic declarations that were not in keeping with the government’s official line. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was declaring his intent to enter a tent to be erected between Ramallah and Jerusalem with Abu Mazen and Kerry and not come out until they reach an agreement, senior members of the coalition such as Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and other members of Knesset from the Likud party were declaring that at the moment there’s nobody to talk to — and nothing to talk about.
Political corpse? That’s certainly not a diplomatic definition …
“Yes, he’s a political corpse. He doesn’t have support. He’s at the end of his rope, and nobody is backing him. On whose behalf is he speaking? He wasn’t even elected, because no elections have been held there. So how can we even think about an agreement with him?”
What’s the alternative?
“We need to manage this crisis. We want peace, but the other side, they have completely different objectives. They want to capture land, to take over the country, to bring back refugees. Abu Mazen is only interested in his own political survival, and peace with us doesn’t interest him.
“Look, we just start talking about resuming negotiations, and the rocket fire from Gaza begins again. This means that we might be able to reach an agreement with Abu Mazen for the West Bank, but not for Gaza.”
You’re not impressed by the US involvement?
“It’s easier for them to pressure us because we are a democracy and have a similar mentality. But they don’t understand the mentality of the other side. They don’t speak the same language. Can they talk to the Syrians? The Iranians? No. But they can talk to the Israelis, so it’s the easiest for them to pressure us.”
In the Ministry of the Interior, Kirshenbaum is responsible for several areas, including issuing the smart ID cards (that include biometric information about the cardholder) and arranging the employment of foreign caregivers. In Israel, close to 45,000 foreign workers are registered in this field, and they come through work permits they receive in advance in their home countries — generally the Philippines and Nepal. The problem is that the permits are granted for a specific patient. However, once they arrive in Israel, many of the caregivers switch patients, and the other patients are left without assistance.
In about a month, a program designed to solve this problem will enter into effect. Kirshenbaum, who has worked diligently to prepare it, is already expecting opposition from human rights groups.
According to the program, which will be backed by regulations, the country will be divided into six geographic regions. Each foreign caregiver will be assigned to a specific region, and will only be allowed to work there. For example, a foreign caregiver who works in the southern Israeli city of Arad will not be able to move to Tel Aviv to work for a different employer — by doing so, they will risk expulsion.
“We plan on adding another 10,000 caregivers, because there truly is a shortage. This will also stabilize prices. The caregivers will not be able to take advantage of the shortage and move from family to family to earn higher wages.”
Kirshenbaum stated that the situation is very bad, particularly in peripheral areas. “Sick people in peripheral areas are abandoned by caregivers. In many cases, the caregiver comes, is with them for two weeks and then flees to the center of the country, where he has friends, communal life and churches. We want to restrict them to a specific region. We won’t expel a caregiver who has come for five years, and whose employer has gotten used to him and still needs him. But anyone who has more than three employers in two years — we’ll need to investigate carefully.”
Aren’t those regulations problematic in terms of limiting freedom of movement?
“Clearly human rights groups will step up again and say that this is a restriction of individual rights and freedom of movement. I would expect them to address human rights in Israel and stop dealing with foreign workers. I’m not saying that we need to impinge on the rights of their employee, and I believe that they need to be paid everything they are entitled to.”
And what about the foreigner phenomenon in Tel Aviv? At the beginning of the week, a foreign national from Sudan went wild with a knife in south Tel Aviv and injured six passersby …
“In south Tel Aviv, there is a serious issue of foreigners who have come illegally. It is a major problem that the government must address. We cannot absorb infiltrators. They are not part of us. … I’m from a conservative party. I’m not from (left-wing) Meretz. I sympathize with the suffering of the infiltrators and think an answer needs to be found. But I do not think that the goal is to keep them here. I’m also against Minister of Health Yael German’s statement saying that the infiltrators need to be provided with health insurance. How exactly? We are in the middle of a crisis over the cost of living and the tax burden. Who will pay for this insurance? After all, they aren’t paying for it. This means that we’ll pay, we’ll pay again. It will come from cuts to the drug basket or taxes. I also want to be humane. I really want to be humane, but I want to be as humane as possible to my people. To those who work and guard and protect my country, the children, the soldiers.”
Are you comfortable with the coalition you’re a member of?
“I want to believe that this coalition will learn how to be a coalition. There are a large number of new Knesset members, who do not always understand the impact of their work. Sometimes the Knesset plenum looks like a kindergarten. I am always shocked by the way they dress. There’s one member of Knesset who comes to the Knesset looking like she just came back from the beach. She wears flip-flops. Another member of Knesset wears very revealing clothing. I would like to see Knesset members who dress appropriately. In this regard Dalia Itzik (former Knesset speaker who imposed a mandatory dress code) was right.”
Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career on the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. She later worked for the second-leading Israeli daily, Maariv. In 1998, she joined Haaretz and later became its chief political analyst. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as its chief political analyst.