MK Colette Avital spoke at the Ameinu offices to a select group of Ameinu and Meretz Board members. MK Avital, one of the most distinguished diplomats in the Israeli foreign service, has been Ambassador to Portugal and Consul General of New York. Twelfth on the Labor Party list, MK Avital will be part of the next governing coalition. Currently, she chairs the Ethics Committee and the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee for the Location and Restitution of Property of Holocaust Victims. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, New York Post and the Forward. She has also recently started with Abu Vilan the One Home or “Bait Echad” campaign, which aims to compensate Israeli settlers who voluntarily move back behind the pre-1967 borders.
Back in New York
In my first week in New York in 1992, I had to speak to an audience in Queens. It was a group of Jews who turned out to be hecklers and who subsequently followed me to almost every meeting I went to. One of them got up and said, “You are the new Consul General here?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Do you mean to tell us that you’re giving up” – this was right after Rabin was elected – “you mean you people will give up part of our land?”
And I said, “No, Ma’am, we’re not going to give up Queens.” Since then, they were after me all the time.
International Women’s Commission
There must be a way in which women can contribute more to peace. The fact is there’s been a resolution in the United Nations, resolution 1325, which has asked governments to include women on any negotiating team, especially on peace issues. We are trying to pursue this on different levels.
For instance, we managed to pass a law through the Knesset that compels the Israeli government to ensure that at least twenty-five percent of the members of a peace delegation are women.
In the next few days we’re going to launch what is called an International Women’s Commission, which is going to be under the auspices of the United Nations. It will be an international body and the steering committee will be formed of twenty Israeli women, twenty Palestinian women and twenty women from the international community.
We think that now because of Hamas there is really going to be a “lack of communications”, to put it mildly, between the Israelis and Palestinians, so it looks like this kind of organization is more necessary now than in the past.
I’d like to say a few words about this strange coalition. It’s no secret that nobody really won these elections. We didn’t win them, Kadima didn’t win them, Likud is in a state of total disarray and may disintegrate. For the first time in Israeli politics, there is no major party, and for the first time the three major parties don’t even have sixty out of the one hundred twenty mandates. However, in terms of potential, we have seventy members of the Knesset who will support any movement towards peace. This is an opportunity but it looks like it will be very difficult to create something with great stability.
We could have created a right-wing coalition very easily and have had Amir Peretz as the next Prime Minister. We could have had everything that we wished in terms of social and economic affairs, because the right-wing parties support our economic and social platform. However, we would’ve been totally stuck on the issues of peace. None of the right-wing parties want any further disengagement – or whatever you might call it – from the West Bank.
The kind of coalition being put together by Olmert wants to advance, carefully, on the issues of peace. However, we have to be very tough on them, because of Kadima’s inclinations. The 2006 budget that was proposed by Netanyahu was adopted by Kadima, and none of the social democratic reforms that we have fought for were on that budget.
As a consequence, we have to be tough on both the political and economic issues. On the political we have to fight very strongly to have the platform be very clear: that the first purpose is to try to get back into negotiations with the Palestinians, and only if that fails are we going to leave parts of the West Bank unilaterally.
Our policy during the elections and after the elections has been and will be to try to strengthen Abu Mazen, to strengthen the Fatah in the hopes of making them an alternative again.
State of Labor
Amir Peretz gave a new face to the Labor Party. From where we were considered a dead body in the eyes of the public, we gained back our credibility. We went very strongly, telling our public at large that we will not join any government unless the first item on our agenda is the fight against poverty.
Fighting against poverty can be translated into a set of actions.
The first set of actions is you have to raise the minimum salary. The minimum salary in Israel is 3,200 shekel, which roughly speaking is not more than 700 dollars. We want to bring the minimum wage up to 1,000 dollars. To give you an illustration of what I mean, about sixty percent of the one and a half million Israelis who live under the poverty line work. They just don’t bring enough of a salary home. Many of them earn between two and three thousand shekel, and most of these people have at least two or three children. It’s very difficult for anyone in Israel, any family, to live on that kind of money. And it’s that kind of situation that we must redress.
The second thing we must work very hard on is creating new jobs. The problem with Netanyahu’s economic plan was that he cut the budget of the government very extensively, and he cut all the money that was earmarked for the unemployed.
People were told to go out and work, but if you live in a little town like Arad, and they tell you to go to work, what can you do? You have to create jobs if you want people to be employed. We have committed ourselves to creating 100,000 new jobs a year.
What is at stake now – and these are terms that are not necessarily liked by an American public – is social democracy. In America, maybe talking about social democracy makes less sense; maybe Democrats see a more liberal way of conducting economic policies. In our country, where you have so many new immigrants, so many elderly people, so many people unemployed, it still makes sense to speak about a social welfare state: not necessarily along the lines of, say, Vietnam but much more along the lines of what’s happening today in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Take Sweden – it’s a big success story . It’s a country that takes a lot of taxes from people, but it’s a country that gives all the best services one can dream of.
In Israel, I cannot tell you how many people die of cancer because they cannot afford to buy the medicine necessary for their cure. In a place like Sweden nobody would discuss this: the medicine is obviously provided when it’s needed. And this is what we want
A few months ago, Abu Vilan and I created a new organization called One Home or in Hebrew, Bait Echad. It’s a movement that has been inspired by settlers, settlers who have approached us from the West Bank and who want to return to Israel of their own accord.
We’ve proposed a bill in the Knesset this week, which, if passed, would allow for compensation for settlers who move back to Israel of their own free will.
The more people who want to evacuate now of their own free will and get compensation, the better off everybody is: the better off the settlers are, because they can plan a different life or at least find a house and work elsewhere; and it’s obviously better for the government.
When we launched this organization, we also launched a website. During the first week over 800 settlers asked us to join the movement. We know that there are already certain settlements where 80 percent of the people want to leave.
We’re talking about settlements that are left on the other side of the fence. They feel insecure. They’re going to be left without too many defenses, but there’s also another kind of security they’ll lose – financial security. They don’t know if they should continue their businesses, or enlarge their businesses, or shut down entirely. One of the settlers from near Hebron showed us a fence that was being built, and said, “We’re outside and we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re like a Palestinian town. Nobody talks to us. We’re ready to leave.”