March 1, 2018 | By Cécile Shea, Stav Shaffir

Deep Dish: Hope and Corruption in Israel with MK Stav Shaffir

Stav Shaffir, the youngest-ever woman elected to Israel's parliament, joins Deep Dish to discuss corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as her own Labor party's failure to pull ahead in polling, despite what she says is a broad base of support for its progressive agenda.

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[Stav Shaffir: In Israel, if you're not hopeful, you cannot be an Israeli.

Cécile Shea: Your prime minister seems to have been embroiled in one corruption case after another, and the largest of those seems to be coming to a head right now.

Stav Shaffir: So we have to get inside and kick out all the people who corrupt the system, in order to replace them with people who work for the Israeli citizen.]

Cécile Shea: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs. Going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Cecile Shea, filling in for Brian Hanson. And today we're talking with youngest ever female member of Israel's Knesset, Stav Shaffir.

Stav Shaffir represents the Labor party in the Labor/Tnuah coalition, which is currently the largest opposition party in Israeli Knesset. The Knesset is the legislative branch of Israel's government, it passes all laws, elects the president and prime minister, approves the cabinet, and supervises the work of the government. Despite her relative youth, Stav Shaffir has made quite a name for herself in Israel politics, demanding government transparency, social and economic justice, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, and decrying what she sees as a move away from Israel's traditional ethics and values. So, welcome again, Stav.

Stav Shaffir: Hi, thank you.

Cécile Shea: Can we be Israeli and use first names? Or...

Stav Shaffir: Of course!

Cécile Shea: Okay. We're really glad...

Stav Shaffir: Please do.

Cécile Shea: We're really glad to have you here today.

Stav Shaffir: Thank you very much, happy to be here.

Cécile Shea: So, Stav, for much of its history the labor party and its predecessor parties have been the preeminent political parties in Israel. Some of the labor movement's prime ministers included, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak. But it seems like for the last 15 years, labor and really the entire Israeli left has been somewhat in decline, both numerically in the Knesset and in terms of polling data. So, what's the current situation with your party, and more broadly, with the Israeli left inside the country.

Stav Shaffir: Well, in the last two decades, the Israeli political systems shifted, not really shifted because we have a multiple party system, but became more and more divided. With more parties, every election round, there is another new party building upon the lack of trust that many Israelis have in the political system. A lack of trust that we see in a phenomenon, we see all over the world. In Israel, a country of 8.5 million people, with 20% Arab population, and an 80% Jewish population, with a major security challenges and being in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the world. Our political system, when it becomes more and more divided, it becomes more sectarian as well. And this sectarianism and the control of sectors of our society is a great challenge for the Israeli society. With that, the progressive camp that labor is the leader of, became more and more divided. After Rabin was assassinated 20 years ago, our political camp went into, became a political camp that's lead by two, three, four parties, saying generally the same things but going into elections separately. Instead of creating one political block. And doing that, that kind of structure, is actually leading to a place where the majority of Israelis want one thing, but the government is doing something different.

We have...When you check the three big questions of society, the first will be security. You have 65% of Israelis in every poll, supporting a two-state solution. 65% and that's after 40 years almost straight, of right wing government. That's after decades of suicide bombers and terror on the streets, and fear and lack of trust in the Palestinians. But still you have 65% of Israelis want two-state solution, want peace. And that's opposed to what our government is leading to. When you go to the social and economic question, you have an ever higher majority, actually, pretty crazy majority, over 90% of Israelis supporting an economic, political, economic policies that are pro-society, that puts the human being at the center. Which means a public social education system, and a public healthcare system. That's what 90% of Israelis want. And the third question is the separation of religion and state. And even there you have, that's a very divisive question in Israel, but you have 75% of Israelis want to have civil marriage, want to have LQBT rights, and want to see a separation of religion and state policies.

But the government is doing something different to all three questions. And the reason the government is being elected is because the right wing in Israel goes to the elections in one party, one political party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. The left in Israel goes to the election in four to five different parties. Some of them define themselves as central parties, some of them trying to blur ideological ideas but still, all of them have the same basic ideas about what our future should look like. The political blocks are relatively the same size with slight advantage to the progressive camp, but going to the election in four to five parties means that we can't win an election. The responsible thing for Israel would be for our party and our different parties on the left to go to the election together as one political block, saying and telling Israelis that 'we're going to do the responsible thing. Put our egos aside, allow and give Israelis the opportunity to elect the leader of this political block, or say that the political block will be led by the party that would get the highest amount of votes. But still, we're going to lead Israel together'. With that, if we go and choose this strategy, we can win the next election definitely.

Cécile Shea: So, related to that, your prime minister seems to have been embroiled in one corruption case after another and the largest of those seems to be coming to a head right now. And yet the movement in the polls does not seem to be quite as large as someone would expect given his current political problems. How do you explain that?

Stav Shaffir: First of all we have strong legal and democratic institutions and I trust the police will continue to do a pretty amazing job investigating through these corruption stories and find the truth as quickly as possible. Corruption everywhere. Political corruption is the thing that prevents the public from getting the services, and prevents citizens from getting the services that they deserve. Spending their tax money in ways that are not serving the public, and not serving our interests, but serving political interests. We have to avoid that and [inaudible 00:07:40], and of course corruption is also heard in our security, and hurting our future. And the other result of that is hurting trust. And when in a democracy, you're losing trust. And when people lose trust in politics, they participate less, they becoming less hopeful about the future. That's a great risk. And that's a greater risk for a society like Israel. Again, small society with big security challenges and with social challenges as well.

The lack of trust in politics is the thing that you know prevented me for a very long time to even think about politics as a path for myself. After leading and organizing the protest movement, and after realizing that if we want to create policy changes, we need the political system. And however, the reason the Israelis are still, I think, nervous, and still in question about the political future of that is because of that lack of trust is not only related to specific corruption story, it's a general feeling about politics. One of my greatest missions in politics is to change that. The reason that since I got into parliament what I've been doing was to fight corruption and work in order to build greater transparency in the way that things work and accountability of politicians to the public, is because I understand that without building again the trust between people and politics, our political system will go the wrong way. And when I just got into parliament and exposed a series of corruption stories in the way that the state budget for, and fought them, and created a transparency in the budget for the first time in Israel's history. And then when I got reelected, I build a transparency committee in parliament.

Today the Israeli parliament is one of the most transparent parliaments in the world. It's one of the first parliaments to have a specific committee dedicated to fighting corruption, opening up and creating a strong policy against lobbyism in politics. Making all the different committees open to the public and completely transparent, forcing politicians to declare their interests publicly and to be more accountable to the public. With all of the achievements that we had there, we build the transparency committee in [inaudible 00:10:26] organization. And today there are 90 different parliament members from different parliaments around the world participating in this discussion that religion, about how we create more transparent policies to fight corruption and create better integrity in political systems.

Now I'm sure that this movement, I think is very optimistic and hopeful movement will lead to the fact that better, more courageous, more honest people will decide to enter political systems and municipal systems around the world, We see this movement happening and only with that movement succeeding we will see political systems that are really, truly dedicated to working for the people.

Cécile Shea: So, a follow up, one big difference between Israel and the U.S. is the way that your elections occur and the public funding of elections. So, it seems like in Israel a person can enter politics, even national politics without really deep pockets. Am I correct in assessing that? That it's perhaps a little easier to enter the political system in Israel than it is in the U.S.? And maybe you could explain a little bit about what someone needs to do to run or the Knesset in Israel.

Stav Shaffir: Yeah. Well, I'll be, I guess, the example of that because when I decided to run I was 26 years old. I was in the middle of my Master degree at University and together with 10 other students, we started the protest movement in 2011. I had no ambition of getting into politics. As I said, I had a very strong lack of trust in politics. I was an activist, but I thought that we should change politics from the outside. And I had no idea how politics worked. I was not a registered party member, I didn't know how the whole thing worked. And I just had a general lack of trust in how it worked, but without knowing anything about what's going on inside. And that's how I think reflects what most people my age, or most people under the age of 40, generally speaking were feeling.

When I decided that I needed to run, that I had to do that, because the young generation doesn't have the privilege of not doing that. And if we think that politics is corrupt so we have to get inside and kick out all the people who corrupt the system in order to replace them with people who work for the Israeli citizens. So I had a month to run. I had no money and no political experience. And what I did was to recruit, to call, to use social networks to recruit people to come and help my campaign. And I had hundreds of people around the country pitching tents in the voting places to remind people why I was running. To solve the housing problem as the first priority, and to convince people to elect me.

In my second campaign, I decided that I was not going to...that was when we went for another general election three years ago, I didn't want to get any big money to support my campaign. So I put a Facebook post saying, 'what do you prefer to do with 50 shekels...' Which is about almost $15, '...to buy a big pizza, or to help me save our country?' And I fundraise my entire campaign through donations of $15 dollars. And with thousands of people coming to help, and becoming part of this campaign. And I have to tell you, the energy that this kind of fundraising gives the campaign, the fact that people become part of that, when people invest, people that don't have a lot of money but they decide to invest a few dollars in a politician, they become part of what this politician is doing. And this politician doesn't owe any money to interest that would not be in the public interest, but is only committed to serving the public and that's a major difference.

We have, thankfully, in our political system, very clear laws on funding and generally speaking, we go into that path of more smaller preference of smaller donations. Again, we have a registration of law based in politics as well, so this also prevents lobbyists from working freely inside Parliament, and there is a very strong public attention to that. There are more since the protest movement. There are more and more organizations just dedicated to make politics more transparent, and to make political money much more transparent.

Cécile Shea: Thank you. That's really inspiring. In a moment I'm going to read you a question that came in on our Facebook page here at the Deep Dish office, but I want to preface it by saying that one challenge that Israel, as you say, a small country has, that I can't think of another country that has to follow, is that Israel is the guardian both inside its 1948 borders and within the territory that international organizations consider occupied. Is the guardian of a number of religious and holy sites that are extremely important to Christians, to Jews, to Muslims, and to Bahai. And that is an additional challenge that complicates peace negotiations, among other things, and general relations around the world with the diasporin with the other religions. So with that, I'm going to ask you, read this one question, and ask you to perhaps respond more generally about Israel's responsibilities to the world's religions. This question is from Christopher, he notes that Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as many as the site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial, reopened a few days ago after Israel backtracked from a plan that would have taxed church commercial ventures, and possibly expropriated some former church property. In reaction to that, the church had closed its doors for three days. What do you think? He asked specifically about what is at stake here, but perhaps we can broaden that to what is it stake with Israel's relations with the world's religions?

Stav Shaffir: First of all, one of the most exciting experiences that you have as an Israeli is that every time you go on a hike to the desert, or to the Galilee, you know that you're walking on paths that were the places where the Bible was written thousands and thousands of years ago. And you have this unique connection to all religions that Israel has, is something that we take a lot of care for, and a lot of respect for. I think Israel, when it comes to the place that are close to Jews around the world, like the Western Wall, the Kotel in Jerusalem, Israel should be an act as part of our regional mission to be the capital of Judaism, and the place where Judaism can flourish [inaudible 00:18:14] and feel free to all streams of Judaism as freely as possible. Where every Jew can feel at home. And this is the same for every other religion and for every other person to practice any kind of religion. Israel should look at it with a lot of care.

Not taking arbitrary decisions, like that tax decision that was not planned in advance, and should not have happened in the first place, and should take a lot of care for that. And you said this is something that is challenging per se, I think actually that this is something that can create a path for peace. And can be used as an advantage and not only is that a threat, it is a great advantage to have and to be the keeper in to be responsible and placed in this specific region, in this specific historical and religious sacred place. And it should be used as an advantage and as a mission, rather than a threat or something that causes the challenges.

Cécile Shea: A complication.

Stav Shaffir: What? [crosstalk 00:19:24]

Cécile Shea: Well, thank you very much for that answer. I think for my last question, it piggybacks very nicely on what you just said I think, as I speak to my Israeli friends who are my age, maybe a little bit younger, I'm struck by how pessimistic they are, especially people from the left. About the possibility of an agreement with the Palestinians in the near future. Or about a return to the optimism of the 90s, when my friends were even talking about being able to end the draft. Is your generation equally pessimistic? Or are you optimistic? And do you think your generation is gonna pick up the mantle for peace and move forward?

Stav Shaffir: You know, our National Anthem is called Hatikvah, the hope. In Israel if you're not hopeful, you cannot be an Israeli. The problem with much of our political camp was that for the last few years, for the last, not few years, but actually two decades, many people, many politicians on our side just gave up. They forgot what it means to win an election. They stop thinking about themselves as being able to win. They stop thinking about the camp as being able to win, so although you see the numbers in the polls, you see that 65% of Israelis still believe in the two-state solution. And you know that this is the only solution that will promise the future of Israel, you know that this is not only the moral solution for both sides, it's the secured solution. It's the only possibility to allow Israel to continue to be a democracy, a place that is equal to all of its citizens, and with a Jewish majority. And a place that can continue to be Jewish and democratic. This is the only possibility.

Cécile Shea: We know that this is in our interest, so, yes, things are not perfect and maybe we don't trust the other side as much as we would like to do that. You know, that's the case generally with people who are considered your enemies for some years. You can't just fully trust them. But it's our security interest, our national interest. And the idea of Zionism, the idea that could bring our grandparents to come from all of these different places, my family is from Iraq, and Romania, and Poland, and Lithuania. To come from all of these places and to fight for our country for Israel to happen, for this miracle to happen, was the idea that we can make the impossible, possible. That's what made Israel, and this is Zionism.

The fact that today, our political system is trying, and the right, is trying to convince us that things are impossible and that the best thing that we can hope for is a status quo of terror and wars. Is against the idea of Zionism, and it's against the idea of hope of our national anthem. And we have to fight that. From despair and from an ongoing feeling of losing, there is no way of making big changes, and Israel's a place where big changes and big possibilities can be achieved. And I know that, and more and more people from my generation understand that. This DNA is the kind of thing that can make us the start-up nation that we are so proud of, and that kind of DNA is the thing that can help us find a solution to the conflict. We need to make it done, and we need to make it done within a very short, very limited amount of time, because things are changing. There is no real status quo. Things are changing. They're not changing in our interest. We have to create a two-state solution because that's the thing that will help our country to have a real future.

Cécile Shea: Member of the Knesset, representing the labor party, Stav Shaffir. Thank you so much for being here at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs today.

Stav Shaffir: Thank you so much.

Cécile Shea: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions or comments on anything you heard on this episode, you can join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs and let us know. As a reminder, the opinions on Deep Dish are those of the people who expressed them, and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you like the show, please subscribe and share Deep Dish with your friends. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our research associate for this episode was Alex Hitch. I'm Cecile Shea. We'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

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