Interview: Colette Avital
Romanian-born Colette Avital, 54, a rising Labor Party star, has served in the Israeli Knesset since 1999. A former diplomat who speaks seven languages—she was Israel’s consul general in New York as well as ambassador to Portugal—she now chairs the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora and the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee for the Location and Restitution of Property of Holocaust Victims and is a member of the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women.
Q. In the last election, Israeli voters overwhelmingly chose Likud’s Ariel Sharon over Labor’s Amram Mitzna. Today, the prime minister’s policies resemble Mitzna’s campaign platform. How do you explain this?
A. The situation is shifting constantly. It’s not ideology. It’s a question of facing stark realities. The prime minister has changed some of his ideas and policies. What may not have been evident to him three years ago has become a reality he must face. Obviously he did not consciously decide to embrace Labor’s policies, but he did reach the same conclusions that we reached long ago. I am in the opposition, did not vote for Sharon, have not trusted him for a long while—yet I have to admit the man has shown a great amount of courage to say, “Yes, I was mistaken, now I am making another choice.”
Q. What are the implications of these changes? If the right is no longer right, is the left scrambling to differentiate itself from the redefined right?
A. The political consequences are as unusual as the policy shifts. When the prime minister now says he agrees with what we said four years ago and would like to move ahead, how can we say, “No, that’s impossible because we were elected to oppose you.” What is important to us is the policy, not the man…. If we are for peace and believe this situation cannot hold much longer without damaging the State of Israel and everything we have created here, we must support him. One thus sees a new political configuration. [To say that] left is right and right is left…isn’t accurate. In truth everyone has drifted more to the center.
Q. Israel has seen an increase of women in the cabinet and Knesset. How do you assess women’s influence in Israel?
A. We have not done as well as we could have done. We had promising beginnings followed by setbacks. Today we are pushing uphill again. Believe it or not, it was much easier in the 30’s, 40’s and even the 50’s to see women in responsible positions.
Q. That sounds counterintuitive.
A. Society was [once] more egalitarian and women had an equal role in creating the State of Israel. Men and women worked together, and women did the same jobs and didn’t have to ask for permission. Golda Meir was not thought of differently because she was a woman. She was judged by her incredible talent to sway and convince audiences, to work with the American Jewish community. Today we have a society that has become much more structured yet more divided. Many people came from different lands and religious traditions, from closed Arab societies. They came from different cultures that do not consider women equal to men.
Q. Don’t the Israel Defense Forces play a tremendous equalizing role?
A. Look at the political elite in Israel. You find a plethora of men, most of whom come from an Army background. Look at my party, look at Likud. It doesn’t matter. Military service, rather than becoming an equalizing factor, became a place where men advanced far more than women, who were kept back for a very long time in positions like secretaries or nurses, not in combat positions. The old-boys network is definitely one legacy of the IDF. Today women who compete with men in my party typically find themselves lined up against former generals. In the previous Knesset I had the opportunity, thanks to a larger number of our MK’s, to be on the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee. Now we have five generals and one previous prime minister, yet only three places…. So I cannot be there. These places are monopolized by the generals, and very few women are generals.
Q. Should equality then push from the bottom up? Are you for women in IDF combat positions?
A. If you want equality in government and in society, there must be equality in the Army. It was then-MK Naomi Hazan who initiated legislation that opened all positions in the Army to women. In other words, women could be pilots or serve in combat units. Although slowly, this is happening more, which in turn brings about a new awareness and a sharper sense of equality among the younger generation. I feel that as long as Israel must remain a militarized society…there won’t be too [great] a chance of seeing more women as prime ministers.
Q. You have dedicated much time and effort to advancing aliya. Yet the numbers were pretty bleak in 2004.
A. In the past we considered 70,000 new immigrants as a bad aliyayear. In 2004, we had 20,000, and it could have been worse. It is all part of a sadder story. I feel that Israel’s not as attractive for people today as it should be. War is one reason, and the security situation. But the other problem has to do with economic conditions. This government pursues a specific policy that does not help new immigrants to find jobs. Western olim do not come here to escape anti-Semitism. They are coming to work and to live. They must be able to find a job and to feed their children and to secure a fine education. Unfortunately, with the economic difficulties of Israel today, the government is not doing what needs to be done. We have not been shy to tell the prime minister that if you want to attract aliyayou must create jobs. You cannot disconnect aliya from a need to change the policies of the government, which must create new and better jobs with the same fervor as it cuts budgets and covers deficits.
Q. Yet the Nefesh b’Nefesh movement that has helped bring 3,000 North Americans to Israel since 2002 secured a 93-percent employment rate for these newcomers—that’s better than the national average. What are they doing right?
A. This is exactly the way to encourage aliya. Nefesh b’Nefesh does not bring over an oleh until they find the right job for him or her. But if we’re speaking of larger numbers from other countries, that does not mean we don’t have to create jobs for them on a nationwide, governmental level. Inside Israeli society we still suffer from a very high rate of unemployment. If the government cuts budgets and shuts down certain facilities or plants in Dimona, it is obligated to create new jobs for those same people. It’s not enough just to say please go to the unemployment bureau. I believe in the creation of one or two major national projects to generate large numbers of jobs.
Q. When 2005 ends, what accomplishments would you like to be able to point to and say, “It was a good year”?
A. I would like to see a renewal of the political process, if not a full-fledged peace process. Without this, there’s no way the intifada will stop or we will have security. With the chapter of [Yasser] Arafat closed and with new and hopefully more pragmatic leadership in place, this is the time to foster new relationships, renewing the possibility for dialogue, which may in turn bring an end to violence. This might well lead to a new political configuration in the country. I hope the prime minister’s disengagement plan will be done, that it will trigger many additional steps. As I indicated, I believe that all the political parties will move closer to the center—a good thing. The third thing that should happen is to create many new jobs. Much of the rest follows naturally. This means changing priorities in 2005. If Labor joins the government, we will help change national priorities, invest more in society and in the weaker elements of society and in education. If these things come to be, then we can honestly say it was a very good year.