Interview: Meir Sheetrit
Meir Sheetrit, a leader in the Kadima Party and Israel’s minister of construction and housing, aims at nothing less than becoming prime minister—the first of North African origin. Sheetrit began his political career as mayor of Yavne. As a Likud member of parliament, the 58-year-old headed the ministries of finance, education, transportation and justice.
Q. Last year, the more dovish Kadima broke off from Likud. But long before that happened, you staked out a prototype Kadima position within your old party. Do you feel vindicated by the events of 2006?
A. It was not easy to leave my party of 33 years, but I have been committed to peace for all those years and never wavered in my positions. I was the lone voice in the Likud, their only Knesset member who did not object to the Oslo agreement. I believe Israel must spare no effort to secure peace for our nation. I liked the concept of Kadima from the beginning. [Then Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon invited me to join him, and the primary reason was to advance the cause of peace and to strengthen security. Believe me, it is not easy. Some of our supposed peace partners are troubled, weak or even want to exterminate us. But we cannot ever lose hope. If we put as much attention, effort and resources into pursuing peace as we do in preparing for war, we will eventually achieve peace.
Q. You have consistently called for direct talks with the Palestinians. Do you still maintain this position today when Fatah and Hamas are fighting each other?
A. The challenge we have is to create peace with real enemies. We must be relentless. It was good that Prime Minister Olmert met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but not good enough. This is why I was probably the first to suggest to the prime minister to reexamine the Saudi peace initiative of a few years ago. When the Saudis first floated it, I urged Prime Minister Sharon to invite them to talk about it. Today, the moderate Arab nations have even more reason to discuss peace with us in light of what they see as the growing threat from Shi’ite Iran. They are also deadly afraid of what an Islamic revolution might look like in their own countries.
Q. How can you discuss peace when irrationality thrives?
A. Look at the reality. Middle East countries alone have bought weapons in recent times totaling $200 billion. That is insane. Think what we could do with that kind of money to benefit the people living in this region, lifting them up from poverty. Education, housing, development of infrastructure would all flourish. We don’t have to accept every idea the moderate Arabs might suggest, but we should start talking, encouraging the idea of Arab governments forging a comprehensive peace with Israel. I see a possible unique opportunity today that did not exist previously. Even if the Palestinians do not join in at the beginning, then let us talk with the Saudis, Jordanians, Gulf Emirates, Morocco and others who are willing to work with us. Eventually the Palestinians will have no alternative but to join in.
Q. Why do you persist in calling for recognition of the claims of Jews from Arab countries?
A. I have always felt close to this issue, as a Jew who came to Israel from Morocco. It is a top priority for Israel to systematically register the claims of the 700,000 Jews who fled Arab lands, abandoning much personal and communal property, after 1948. Jews ran away from their homes in the dark of night, they were hunted and in some places, like Iraq, hanged. They left everything behind, or sold personal belongings or businesses at a fraction of their value, to come to Israel. The Jewish state absorbed these refugees together with those who survived the Holocaust. We accepted them with open arms, enabled them to build new lives in Israel, including houses, jobs, the excitement of creating a new society.
Q. In stark contrast to the Palestinian refugees?
A. Their [Arab] brothers perpetuate their sad conditions instead of alleviating them. The international community has transferred [to] the Palestinian refugees billions of dollars [to] keep them inside refugee camps…using this situation as a political weapon. Look at all these fantastically wealthy Arab nations that don’t give a damn about their brothers, refusing to rehabilitate them. Had they behaved as Israel did, there would be no refugee problem today. But every time peace talks start happening, they immediately point the spotlight at the refugee camps to make political demands.
Q. Is it a coincidence that Israel has never elected a prime minister of North African or Sefardi origin?
A. I do think it’s a coincidence. I see nothing deeper in this fact, and I am certain we will have a Sefardi prime minister. We have had [Sefardi] presidents, defense ministers and other senior ministers of every kind from the Eastern sector. It will happen.
Q. Why are people calling your plan to encourage foreign investment to build affordable rental housing for young Israeli couples “revolutionary”?
A. Today’s housing situation is unacceptable. More than 50 percent of newly married couples cannot afford to buy a house…[and] there are scant rentals available. Long-range rentals almost do not exist. [People] are forced to buy houses very early on that they cannot afford. They put all their capital into such purchases and then top that off with huge mortgages, which heap instant financial pressures on them. Precisely at the time when they start to raise a family and have educational and social needs for the children, so much of their assets are locked into paying for the house.
Q. How will your proposed legislation work?
A. We surveyed how other countries, especially in Europe, are dealing with this challenge, and there are good solid answers. My approach will make it attractive for developers, including overseas investors, to build new complexes with a minimum of 16 units, all of which must be rented out for at least 25 years. We will offer builders new tax benefits that will outdo the yield for investments as compared to current bank rates or government bonds.
Q. How will your law help the poorest people?
A. Presently, government rental subsidies are so low that they almost force poorer families into renting in distressed neighborhoods. Obviously, this tends to perpetuate the problem. I am suggesting an American-style reform where each qualifying family will receive an annually renewable voucher that will let them rent wherever they want, including more upwardly mobile communities. Twenty-five percent of their income will go toward the rental and the balance will be paid by the government.
Q. It’s difficult to remember a period in Israel in which more government corruption has been unveiled, when more senior officials were under police investigation. As former justice minister, how do you view this issue?
A. I am obligated to say firstly that, despite the perception of widespread corruption, this is not accurate. So very many are not corrupt. But this is a problem, and we must uproot every single instance of corruption. No one can be above the law.
Q. Where do you see yourself in five years?
A. I have never hidden my intention to become prime minister. I competed against Sharon and Olmert in the 1999 Likud primaries. Sharon at the time received 52 percent [of the votes], Olmert 24 percent and I received 22 percent, which was respectable. I wait for the time and circumstances to come that will enable me to guide the State of Israel into the very best place possible for the Jewish people. I believe peace can be achieved; security should not be used as a fig leaf to stifle social reforms that need to happen. I am not afraid of the external threats. Israel’s future is much more threatened by the enemy within…poverty, lack of education, youngsters falling through the cracks into delinquency. Crime is the biggest enemy of all to Israel’s future. This is…what I have believed since I entered politics as mayor of [Yavne] and for the past 23 years in many senior national capacities. In every role, I have been committed to learning more about how things work. When the time comes, I want to be a leader who manages many complex systems in the best possible way.