Roy: MK Biton, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Please introduce yourself briefly to the readers.
MK Michael Biton: My name is Michael Biton, I was born in Yeruham to Masouda and Eliyahu Biton, great parents, passed away, new immigrants from Morocco who settled in my town, Yeruham. I was an educator, a social entrepreneur, and a community center director. I also worked for the Jewish Agency and the Canadian federations in Israel. Then, I became the mayor of Yeruham and the minister of three offices in the government: in the security office, the strategic affairs issue, and one for social equality. Now, I am going be the chairman of the Economic Committee of the Knesset. This is a very short introduction.
Roy: Congratulations! How did you start your political journey – what started your interest in — and passion — for politics.
MK Michael Biton: A few things. One, my town suffered for many years a lack of leadership, it was for many years a place of ‘negative immigration’, with a bad reputation and a bad economic situation. I loved my town, and I loved my community. People claim that in my twenties, they knew that one day I would be the mayor of Yeruham, but it was not always easy. I left high school when I was young, and I got into the army before finishing high school. It was tough in the Golani Brigade, but Golani gave me the opportunity, and they appointed me as an officer even before I entered Officer’s School, and because of that I became a Golani officer. After the army, I completed my degrees, and I knew that if I would let other kids in Yeruham to go through the process I did, I can give them opportunity. So, I collected many people from the street and prepared them to the army for combat unit services, and that really gave them an opportunity in the future. So I look at my town, and I knew I wanted to make a difference, and as a social entrepreneur for over twenty years in my town, I created a few NGOs: an NGO for kids at risk, I chaired an NGO for the joint learning of secular and religious people, and I created an NGO for young adults to settle back in the town and take leadership roles. This experience and those initiatives brought me to the position of Mayor of Yeruham.
Roy: Wonderful! Transitioning to something more modern, what are your general feelings about the composition of the new government and the new coalition?
MK Michael Biton: It is a mixed feeling, as I was one of those who wished to keep the last government, since I saw the potential for stability. In many ways, Kahol Lavan are centrist, moderate people who can live with complexities — and the politics of Israel is complex. The fact that Kahol Lavan is a centrist party and the Likud is a right wing party — but not a radical one — and some of the Likud members are centrist, it was easy to keep the government together in terms of the principles of the governments. It wasn’t easy to keep it together since we had contention with Bibi and he would not keep his commitment to Benny Gantz regarding the rotation. Now, we have created a new government — it is good that Israel has a government after four elections over two years, which is a nightmare, a political crisis, and a situation for which the citizens will pay the price. The fact is that the previous government dealt well with the corona, and despite fighting within the government we brought three or four peace agreements in a single year, which was nice. Now, we built a government to prevent another round of elections, but if you look at this government, it has both far-left people and far-right people, and they need to work together — in addition to including in the coalition an Arab party which is aligned with the Islamic movement. This is a major obstacle, how to create stability in a government connecting the extremes in Israeli politics. In short, it is good that we have a government, it is tough to keep it together because of the alignment of the parties, and it is bad that we did not include the largest party — one which has thirty mandates — and the Prime Minister represent only six or seven mandates, which is an unusual situation in Israel.
Roy: Absolutely. Going more into depth on a couple of issues, the inclusion of Ra’am as an Islamic Movement-aligned Arab party is a first in Israel. Could you elaborate a bit on how you feel about their inclusion, and what you think it implies for the potential difficulties and achievements of the current government?
MK Michael Biton: On one hand, the fact that Arabs are willing to be part of a government is good news for the Israeli society. Not only are they be willing to be part of a government, but they are saying for the first time ever loud and clear that the civic issues are a priority for them and they are willing to put aside the other issues. This is maybe an opportunity to work with the Arab community in a different way. For many years, Arab parties were emphasizing the Palestinian challenge and issues of state and security instead of emphasizing the potential for working together on civic issues. On one hand, it is good for the reasons I mentioned, but on the other hand, as a government official and a former member of the Security Cabinet and minister in the Security Office, we are dealing with terror and Hamas attacks and the Iranian threat and the Hezbollah threat, and we must be tough, strong, and united in the government against any threat to security. The Ra’am party will not always back the government on these issues. In addition, in many ways Iarael has made huge progress toward accepting the homosexual, lesbian, LGBT community, and Ra’am is against these rights. Even the Likud has an LGBT group, even Yamina has been very accepting toward them, so even in civic issues where we think we can work together, Ra’am are very religious, Islamic people, and won’t support such laws. So this is another challenge: how to keep this partnership through such a difference in the ideology of the component parties.
Roy: Recently, Ra’am made a declaration that any action against Gaza would result in them dissolving the government. Kahol Lavan ran as a party which is emphatically in support of security measures, so would you be willing to go ahead with actions against Gaza should it be necessary and let Ra’am dissolve the government?
MK Michael Biton: I don’t think that Ra’am’s threat is real. We are acting against Gaza every day — we do not have operations and war every day, but we are acting against terror every day, both in secret and public. No one will compromise on Israel’s security, and if there is a terror threat we should act. If the price is that this government will not exist, that is okay — the security of the people of Israel is not for debate with anyone, and no one will accept a party that will try to block our policy against terror and threats in Gaza.
Roy: As you mentioned previously, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has a very small party, comprising only of seven mandates, or six if you include only those in the government. He has previously run on a number of radical right-wing issues, and Yamina was a much more radical party than the Likud in many ways. How can you rationalize sitting beneath someone who has endorsed relatively ‘radical’ policies of annexation, and regarding the treatment of Arab Palestinians?
MK Michael Biton: He is a right-wing person, but not doesn’t have the most radical right-wing opinions — those are outside of the coalition, such as [MKs] Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. He is a practical guy, he knew that if he was to be Prime Minister in partnership with the Labour, Meretz, and Ra’am, many of his dreams relating to his right-wing ideology will not be implemented over the next four years. Everyone knows his place, and everyone is working very hard to keep this partnership, as they know in advance that this is a fragile partnership. For now, people are careful, here and there they say what they think, as they owe their audience their voice, but in daily life each one of them knows that they will have to compromise a lot to keep this government together.
Roy: I see. If you were to personally pick a ministry to head, which ministry would you choose, and what would the most important policies that you would want to push through in this term?
MK Michael Biton: In the first stage, I would like to be the Minister of Education. When I look at my goals in life until the age of 120 (or 80, whatever may happen), my goals are to make a difference in my town, to show the nation, show the people of Yeruham, and show the world that you can turn a place with a low socio-economic background into a strong, growing community. This model has been adopted all over Israel, and now my goal is to narrow gaps, to create equal opportunity, to strengthen the Negev and the Galilee, and one day to bring peace while keeping our security. Another important goal is to keep our commitment and partnership with Jews all over the world, as we have a responsibility today more than even. In the first stage, I would like to be the Minister of Education and give equal opportunity to kids, keeping what we promised, “free education”, and do it for real. We say “free education” in Israel, but it is not free: we ask poor kids to pay for their food, for their books, and for their hikes; we ask them to pay full tuition for their informal education, and we lose a lot of human resources and human capital because of this. That is a strong position, which one day I hoped to be in. Perhaps someday other ministries, but that would be the first priority.
Roy: On a global stage, if you were Prime Minister today, what would be the most important actions for Israel to take regarding international relations going forward?
MK Michael Biton: One action is to keep our relations with the Arab states who signed agreements with us in a high, warm level, best we can, including Jordan, Egypt, the Emirates, Bahrain, South Sudan, Morocco, and many others that we have dialogue with, although not formal peace. It is very important to keep and strengthen this group of Middle Eastern states that choose peace. Second, to strengthen our partnership with the new president and government in the United States. Third, to look around including the Russians and Chinese as two other giants, and how we can manage all these complexities. Also, to strengthen our name, our PR, and our story in the European world, because in many ways we are connected to Europe — over the years, as the Middle East was not open to Israel, many of our international campaigns were part of the European story. We have work to do with the European states and the European Union to build and strengthen relations.
Roy: There have been accusations from both the right and the left against Kahol Lavan, which as a ‘centrist’ party surely needs to straddle the line. There are accusations from the Right that the current government will be too weak on Iran, too weak on Gaza, and too weak on the international stage, in addition to accusations from the Left that the current government will be too radical going forward regarding issues of potential annexation of different territories and treatment of local Palestinian Arabs. How do you straddle the line, how do you stay in the ‘center’?
MK Michael Biton: We have a good Minister of Security — Benny Gantz — with a lot of experience, and there is continuity in his position from the previous government to this one. I was part of the group who designed the policy for Gaza, and we will not accept here and there burning balloons and Qassam [rockets] shooting on us: we will respond to those attacks in a severe, way more than ever, to prevent a bigger war or a bigger operation. That is the policy, and in many ways this government will be even more determined on the Gaza strip and on the Gaza story. Regarding Judaea and Samaria, there are forces in the government which want to settle and create more settlements, and there are groups and partis that want to limit those settlements and even withdraw from some of them. Our perception as Kahol Lavan is that whatever is legal should exist, whatever is not legal we should prevent, we should not take any actions which will embarrass the United States, and we should keep the principles that existed in the past. Many people from the Right can blame the government about these issues, but they didn’t take any real actions to create order in Judaea and Samaria. The threat of Iran is severe, it is a serious one. The government will act, and the policy will probably be the same as in the previous government — I don’t foresee any changes in this policy.
Roy: I see. Regarding the threat of Iran, this has also been very useful in contributing to different peace accords and peace agreements with different Arab nations. Do you see a potential going forward for additional peace agreements expanding the Abraham Accords to other countries, extending it beyond Morocco to other countries, whether extending it to Saudi Arabia or other countries in the area?
MK Michael Biton: We already have an agreement with Morocco, and Saudi Arabia has a great potential for peace. We will definitely enjoy the power and relations which the United States possesses to help us accomplish those. We also need to work tightly with the United States to understand that Iran is not only a threat to Israel: Iran sees the United States as the ‘big Satan’, and they see Israel [only] as the ‘small Satan’. The Iranian regime is a radical Muslim terrorist regime which sends terrorsits all over the world, including those which hurt Americans. Their dream is not only to destroy Israel. Their dream is to destroy the vision of the United States, to destroy the vision of freedom and human rights, and the values of democratic nations. I hope that the leadership of the United States will not be naïve, to think that this is a local fight of Israel against Iran. This is a real existential threat for the United States itself. If they will understand the situation in this way, we will have an easy way to work together to prevent Iran from having a nuclear capacity and prevent Iran from sending their terrorists all over the Middle East, including lately in Iraq, where they sent those groups to attack American soldiers.
Roy: Should President Joe Biden decide to go against this and return to the Iran deal, will the government support that action and go along with America, or will they act against it?
MK Michael Biton: It depends on what type of deal, and how tough the deal is. We showed the world over the last five to ten years that the Iranian people are not being honest with the world. While they promised they don’t have nuclear weapon plans, we showed their plans. In many ways I see the Iranian state’s leadership akin to the experiments of Chamberlain working together with Hitler, thinking ‘this guy is an okay guy who we can make deals with’. [I think this even though] I am not a radical Rightist, I am a centre-Left person. But when you see someone who expands terror to Lebanon, to Syria, to Gaza, to Iraq, to Yemen, and attacks international places, you cannot still think they are peace-seeking. We cannot go to negotiations with them in a naïve way. I am expecting a more tough attitude to the Iranian issue.
Roy: If we look toward the international stage, and particularly toward social media and the younger generation, attitudes have been shifting recently in support of Hamas and against Israel. You go on Instagram, on Snapchat, on Facebook, on Tiktok, and you see incitement against Jews and against Israel all the time, support of the PLO, and support of the terrorist organization Hamas. How do you stand up to this on a personal and interpersonal level?
MK Michael Biton: There are many ways people use to excuse their internal antisemitism. Sometimes this excuse is corona, sometimes this excuse is a Haredi guy on the street, and sometimes through Israel — there use many methods of antisemitism. I do not think Israel did a good job in telling our story to the world, we need to improve this system. It is not easy to be a supporter of Israel while the media is totally not with us, but I always remember as a [former] soldier in the Golani Brigade, that a Hamas terrorist will shoot missiles from houses, from schools, from medical centers, will build his bunker beneath hospitals, and will shoot his missiles on civilian society. A Golani fighter will look carefully if he can prevent damage and will avoid killing innocent people, and will look only for the terrorists. I know our moral level. We do not always succeed to tell other about this. Even in this last operation, of Guardian of the Walls, I was in the cabinet — we didn’t want to get into this operation, we wanted to keep it quiet. But suddenly we have missiles targeted at our capital — can you imagine if Washington received [incoming] missiles from somewhere? Do you think the United States would be relaxed? Do you think the United States would not act? This is something we cannot accept, but we do not explain it appropriately. We have a lot of work to do to fix this “Hasbara” system.
Roy: Absolutely. Wrapping up, do you have anything you want to say directly to the Jewish students in America and throughout the world?
MK Michael Biton: Students can change the world. As a student without a high school degree, I created NGOs in my town. As a student I created an NGO to connect the Negev to work together. As a student, Ben-Gurion created a youth movement in Plonsk, when he was 16, maybe 15 years old. The Jewish students of Hillel are amazing people. The Jewish world is a beautiful world, but has challenges. How many Jews care about their Jewish identities? What does it mean to them to be Jewish, what does their Jewish identity mean to them? For me it is simple: “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” (love your fellow as yourself), “מה ששנוא עליך אל תעשה לחברך” (do not treat others in a manner you do not want to be treated), and you should feel caring for every Jew according to the value of “כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה” (the entire nation of Israel is responsible for one another). It’s not easy to guarantee someone that totally does not agree with you, but that is the mitzvah [commandment], mutual responsibility between many Jews who do not think the same. Haredi Jews, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, secular Jews, Traditional Jews, we must be responsible for all of them. In my life, I try to listen and to be connected to all types of Jews, and to find a bridge where I can work with people even though I do not agree with them on everything. Now there are six or seven million Jews in Israel, and about six million Jews in the States. Jewish identity is a challenge in the States, but also in Israel, because we have a generation of secular Jews who do not like how Judaism looks through the institution of the Rabbinate in the government, and they have good reasons for that. So Jewish identity is a challenge for all of us, and working together is a challenge, since there are not so many other Jews in the world: we have 40% of Jews in Israel, 40% in the States, maybe 45% in each, and maybe only 10% over the rest of the world. We are the two groups that must work together. To be a Jewish student in the States now is not easy, they will hear voices of BDS, they will feel antisemitism. Hillel is a great institution to feel home, to feel like family, to feel connected to Judaism, to do Tikkun Olam, to come to Israel on Birthright and Masa and internship programs. Not to agree with all of what Israel is doing and not to agree with all of what every Jew is doing, but to be committed to Judaism and to be committed to the security of Jewish people wherever they are, like Montefiore from England who went to Syria to protect Jews, like British Jews and French Jews who went to Morocco to help with education. We have the same responsibility these days, to work together on our future.
Roy: Wonderful. MK Biton, thank you so much for joining me for this interview!