Highlights from the interview with Yesh Atid MK Moshe Tur-Paz:
- The current coalition is successful, having toppled Netanyahu and passed a budget
- The 2005 Disengagement from Gaza was neither a net positive nor negative for the State of Israel
- Alternate PM Lapid is leading the government to tie itself to President Biden’s foreign policy, particularly regarding Iran and the return to the Iran Deal
- There will likely be a shutdown over the High Holidays, timed to minimize lost days of work
- Schools will likely be only partially open, with outdoor and independent learning as a major component
- Settlements will not be normalized, with the status quo regressing to its state from ten or fifteen years ago (under PM Olmert and/or Sharon)
- The coalition is willing to accept to be supported by the Joint List, should it be necessary
MK Tur-Paz, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Please briefly introduce yourself to the readers.
My name is Moshe Tur-Paz, but my nickname is Kinli (coming from my childhood). I’m 49 years old. I grew up in Haifa and then Jerusalem, but I was born in Philadelphia, so I have multiple roots. I’m married to Shlomit; we have five children and live in the kibbutz of Kfar Etzion. I’ve been working as an educator for all of my life: I was a teacher, then principal, then head of the Jerusalem Department [of Education] for five years. I joined Yesh Atid five years ago, when I finished my post[doctorate] in Jerusalem. Since then, I have been mixing education and politics. I also served in the paratroopers as a commander, and have been serving as a battalion commander since in the paratrooper reserves, and still do my service there.
What started your interest in politics?
I think I knew from when I was a young child that I will be in politics – I got it from wanting to influence what happens in Israel, and Israel is the place to influence. I brought with me into the world of politics my being an expert of education, which is something that not many politicians do – most come from either the army or journalism. I’m also very much interested in the connection between Israel and the Diaspora – this is something I put a lot into – and with pluralistic Judaism – which is another area I am very much into. What I am trying to do in politics is to bring those special issues I see that have an added value and to influence.
What specifically brought you to Yesh Atid?
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox family, and I was brought up always not to look to live with people like me, but to seek the other, the different people. That is the way I grew up, so I never voted for a religious party, I always voted for a more general party. Nine years ago, in 2012, I was quite fed up with politics. I was voting Likud at the time, and I felt that the Likud was no longer representing me anymore, my values and people I wanted to look up to. Then came into politics two people I thought were very interesting: one was Naftali Bennett, and one was Yair Lapid. Today, they are Prime Minister and secondary Prime Minister. I thought that Yesh Atid and Yair Lapid have something unique, because they can speak for a very broad, a very big range of people. I saw religious, non-religious, and even modern ultra-Orthodox people getting into the party, joining in, and influencing. This is something I was very fond of. When I left public service four years ago, I met with Yair Lapid, we started meeting every month or so, and I got to know someone I think is a brilliant leader.
Do you feel that so far – we are only a couple months in – that this coalition is successful in doing what it set out to do.
Yes. Yesh Atid’s DNA is about working hard, being honest, and doing your best as a professional. I think this new government is filled with people who are looking to do their own job. They’re not focused on their own ego, they are willing to work together, and they are changing already a lot of things that were stuck in Israel for many years. First and foremost is the fact that we didn’t have a country budget, and without a budget, many things fall apart – in any country. This is something unheard of, and I think this is our main achievement. I come from the public service and many of my friends are professionals, working in governmental organizations. They say to me that at last they feel the people who have become ministers are the most suitable ones, they are listening, and they aren’t busy doing politics. I can tell you personally that all my friends from the party who have become ministers don’t have time to do political work, since they focus on governmental work, and I think this is how we want our ministers.
Back in 2005, you founded a forum for religious soldiers’ obedience in the IDF, particularly focusing on the Disengagement [from Gaza]. Please briefly discuss this.
Let’s talk about the Disengagement. In 2005, I am serving as a teacher in a Jerusalem high school, learning at Hebrew University working on my doctorate, and I’m serving as a Deputy Commander of a battalion in paratrooper reserves. I have been serving in the reserves in the Gaza Strip, and I see many Religious Zionist soldiers opposing the governmental decision. I was brought up that whatever the government says, you should obey even if you don’t like it. I was a commander of soldiers, some right-wing and some left-wing, and they were coming to reserves and doing their duty. I thought to myself that it would be a much bigger catastrophe if commanders would leave the army or not do their duties because they disagree politically. I gathered about 500 Religious Zionist officers in the reserves, some right-wing and some left-wing, who signed that they would obey orders since that is what the army is about, and called upon other Religious Zionists to do the same. I think we had some influence, and we were talking with officers in the army who were making up their minds. I had a very strong voice and point to make, that the country had to go on beyond differences of right and left-wing, even though for right-wing parties and most of Religious Zionism, this was a very, very tough time.
Do you think retroactively that the Disengagement was a net positive for the State of Israel?
It was definitely enacted in an unprofessional way. We had about 9000 settlers who were removed from their homes, and it took over ten years to rebuild their homes and give them jobs again. I think it is some kind of trauma in recent Israel history, and I don’t want to say whether it is right or not right. You can take both sides – on one hand, Gaza became much more pro-terrorist and has many more missiles and a larger army today, but on the other hand, the 9000 settlers that lived there are not in the Gaza Strip, which is a good thing. This is not the main issue. The main issue is that the Disengagement is an Israel trauma, and influences any decision that will come or not regarding taking people away from their homes. As a nation, we saw the country may not be able to stand another such event. This, together with the second intifada, brought Israel to the notion that the Palestinian side – at least their political wing – isn’t a partner for large operations, which is something most Israelis share today. Yet, I think we shouldn’t give up the hope for peace, and we should take after the verse “Seek peace and chase it”, do whatever you can for peace because that is the way we should live.
With the inauguration of the new Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, tensions with Iran are reaching new highs, and there are fears that the US will return to the Iran Deal or reduce sanctions. What is the government’s policy regarding security threats from Iran?
We are doing our best to be in the same state of mind and work very closely with the American government. This is a change Lapid brought into our foreign policy, different from Netanyahu, and I think this is the right way to deal with things. But Israel has always said, says, and will say, that if we are forced to, we won’t hesitate to act like we have done twice before, to keep nuclear weapons from Arab countries. After we have done it in Iraq, and we have done it in Syria, so if we have to act in Iran, I am sure we will. This is a major governmental security issue, and I do hope the new American government will manage to reach a fair agreement with the Iranian people which will stop and prevent in the future Iran from getting nuclear power. It doesn’t matter which government leads Israel – if we see Iran is getting a nuclear weapon, Israel will not hesitate to take action.
If President Joe Biden returns to the Iran deal, and it appears that Iran is converging on a nuclear weapon, you would be willing to act against Joe Biden’s request to continue peaceful negotiations with Iran?
Lapid is leading the government very strictly to work with President Biden and the American government, and we work very well together both on political and unprofessional sides. We are saying that Iran will not reach a nuclear weapon, whatever that means.
With a government that is spread out across so many ideologies, how did you manage to pass a budget that would satisfy everyone?
In my opinion – and many of the MKs in the coalition share my view – I hope one of the Haredi will join this government, since I would like a representative of every part of Israeli society to be in the government. At the moment I told my Haredi colleagues that I think they’re making a big mistake by holding onto Netanyahu, and I think they’re paying a price for this. This coalition is a very delicate one, but it’s led by two professionals – Bennett and Lapid – and its theme is that we agree on about 80-90 of issues, and the rest can wait at the moment. If we don’t have an agreement about some things, we will put them aside, since we want all eight parties to be happy more or less with 80-90% of issues. Look, this isn’t new in politics – in any government in Israel, you don’t get everything you want, all coalitions had to make some compromises. When Ben-Gurion gave the Haredi parties the 400 boys released from the army, that was a kind of political price to pay, since he didn’t want to fight some parties. You negotiate all the time, you make compromises, but the main theme of this government is that it is the Change Government: this government is willing to take chances and to lead changes in Israel. Today, we started with big decisions in the environment, we put a lot of money in welfare, in education, and in energy. In almost any area you can think of, this government is willing to lead changes, which is a big thing.
These sorts of broad changes require money. There are fears about taxes in this budget, and much criticism from the opposition about this topic. What is your view on this?
The truth is that we haven’t raised taxes – we have shifted some money around. As the World Bank says, we are having a good year in the economic growth of Israel, so the government of Israel has some money in its pockets to share. At the moment, we are looking at a fair, good year hopefully in an economic sense, and we see that we can make changes with a big rise in taxes. We are just shifting area from this area t that area, as governments do.
One of the biggest fears about such broad economic plans is regarding the delta variant of coronavirus. We are headed into more lockdowns and the reinstation of many restrictions. With this, comes an economic price: the fear of lower revenue, loss of businesses, and loss of jobs. Are there plans in the works to remedy this?
Yes, but we are in a different state of mind now dealing with COVID-19. This government will be very progressive about leaving as much of the economy open as possible. We want the Israeli economy to work the best it can. We have the vaccines, we are now giving the third doses to some people, and I believe we will do better economically. Even if we have to have a shutdown for a while, a lot of businesses will be able to stay open, because we have learnt and changed how we are running economics. You will see high-tech getting help, agriculture getting help, and others in order to work the most we can, and to stay open even if there is a shutdown. If we do need to have a shutdown, the best time to do this is during the High Holidays, since we have almost no workdays or days of learning in schools, and prayers will go on outside. If we need a shutdown, this is the right time to have it, but do hope we won’t get there.
Do you believe schools will fully reopen this fall semester?
The main theme the Minister of Education is leading is that schools should be open. My belief is even more extreme: schools should be closed last and opened first. We have to be dedicated to doing our best so that 2.4 million students will continue learning. Not only for those 2.4 million children, but also for their parents and families, since if they are at home, most businesses would be closed anyways. Israel is very different from England. In England, in some parts of the country, you have almost 300 days of rain a year. In Israel, you have 30 days of rain, and that’s all. In all the rest of the year, you can learn outside, since the weather is fairly okay, and we need to practice –as long as COVID-19 is with us – learning out of class, and I think there are a lot of benefits to this. We also need to practice using virtual learning and so on. I do really believe that the main state of mind should be that we are not canceling any more days of learning, and we will do our best to do so.
Returning to the budget, there were additional concerns regarding the settlements and a perceived lack of construction and dedication to settlement funding and normalization. Do you have anything to assuage the fears of pro-settlement people about this government and the budget?
Look, I don’t think there will be great changes in either direction. What we have done in the last few years will continue. This government is not leading any change in Judaea and Samaria or the settlements. I don’t think this is the time, I don’t think that the country is ready for it, and I don’t think this government is fit for it. I think we will see more of the same, but again, one of the things about this government is that it is coming to work, and we are back to fair chances for everybody. If you have a real need, you will get it, not because you are a settler or because you are from of this or that tribe, but because that is what we need to do. This is the way Yesh Atid things, and this is the way this government thinks. A lot of ministers are taking decisions that are opposed to what is supposed to be their ideology, but now we are talking practice. We are practicing government, and government is for everybody. Our government will be really good for Arabs, but I feel our government will also be good for settlers and even for ultra-orthodox people since we are not against them. We want them to have a big part in our economy and in the army, but will not do any thing to harm them. Settlers, as other people in this country, can be relaxed, and I don’t think any bad thing will happen to them.
Settlements will be allowed to continue construction as in the past?
More or less, like it was 10 or 15 years ago.
You mentioned that you wished that the ultra-Orthodox had representation in this coalition. Are there attempts being made to bring them from the opposition or to at least represent them without official entrance into the coalition?
Many efforts are being made, and will be made. I can only speak for myself – I was talking to my ultra-orthodox colleagues in the parliament about being part of our government before the last elections, and I am doing it even today. I deeply believe that they should be part of government. There are talks, we are sharing ideas, and I think that now the budget is passed, the ultra-orthodox and others will realize that this government is here to stay, and maybe there will be a reconsideration of this main issue.
Until such as time, this government is very narrow, having the bare minimum number of votes necessary. There have been fears that some member might not be willing to vote on certain issues with the coalition. Should it be necessary, will the government be willing to accept support from the Joint List?
Look, we are talking with everybody, and yes, we are willing to accept support from any party. We have had a very good political month. This past month was very efficient: we passed all laws we wanted, we won all elections, and I don’t think this coalition is particularly narrow, since we have support on some issues on oppositions. You don’t have to look only at the Arab side, but you can also consider the Opposition – on most issues, the Joint List isn’t part of the Opposition, since they don’t see Netanyahu as their representative. I do think that we will able to make things work.
To wrap up, is there anything you would like to say to American Jewry about how to stay connected to Israel?
Over the past year, I have been part of many efforts to strengthen the connections between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. I was sitting with Nachman Shai, the Minister of Diaspora, and sharing ideas. I do think there is a change in this government and in Israeli society about understanding the importance of connections. We are willing to make a big effort and to invest a lot to make a change, and I hope we will see a change toward more pluralistic Jews. Now, American Jews can be more proud of Israel, at least for the next four years or so.
MK Tur-Paz, thank you so much for the interview, it was a pleasure.
Thank you very much.