Former Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai was not “fully aware of the impact” of his Knesset vote last week in favor of a bill designed to keep Reform and Conservative representatives off of Israel’s religious councils, according to his running mate on the new centrist party.
“He was not aware,” insisted former Israeli Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in an interview here with The Jewish Week just hours after he called Mordechai for an explanation.
Mordechai’s vote, which proved decisive in the 50-49 passage of the bill, caught Shahak and Jewish leaders here by surprise. Some observers even questioned whether the new, as yet unnamed party could continue to call itself centrist, saying his vote appeared to be at odds with comments Mordechai made last week when announcing he would be his party’s candidate for prime minister. At that time Mordechai called for the participation of all citizens “in the life of the state and its institutions on a basis of absolute equality.”
Shahak dismissed such criticism, saying the party was truly centrist.
“If we want to kill the hope that Israel needs so much these days, if the centrist party is taken apart, that’s the end of hope for change,” he said.
Shahak, in New York for a five-day get-acquainted visit with Jewish leaders, said he and the other founders of the party — Mordechai, Knesset member Dan Meridor and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo — had not had a chance to discuss the religious council issue before the vote.
“Mordechai expressed his personal opinion,” Shahak said. “No doubt we will have to sit down and agree what we want. And I can tell you that we all agree that Israel is a Jewish state — first and foremost. It is the home for all Jews around the world. And Israel will remain a Jewish state in which Jews of all different factions have to find a way to live together and respect each other, not only personally but each other’s beliefs.”
Asked how he would have voted were he a member of the Knesset, Shahak said he believed that voting on such an issue is wrong because win or lose, it means “we are split in half, not only on this but on other issues.”
The one-vote margin, he said, “means that we are divided into two halves of Israelis, or politicians. I am not sure that this really reflects the ideas of all Israelis but … it shouldn’t be brought to the Knesset this way or to the Supreme Court. We should discuss it between ourselves.”
Shahak, 54, and twice decorated for courage in the army, refused to be pinned down when asked if he believed Reform and Conservative rabbis should have the right to perform marriages in Israel.
“I believe that everyone has the right to express his ideas,” he said. “We should give an answer inside Israel on what is the best way. … But I believe that in Israel — historically and according to Israeli law — the religious councils and the Chief Rabbinate were the only voices on religious matters.
“Is it time for a change or not? We should listen to one another and try to learn the problems of the other side in order to make this change.”
Shahak said the Mordechai vote did not adversely impact his meetings here with several hundred Jewish leaders. Shahak stressed that he was here just to introduce himself as a political candidate and that he did not do any fund raising.
According to several of those who attended the closed-door sessions, Shahak said that he was committed to ending the growing discord between Israelis, and charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to pull the country together.
“He said the internal divisions are a greater threat to Israel than many of its external problems,” recalled Malcolm Hoenlein of Shahak’s remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. “He did not minimize the external problems, but said that if we can talk to the Palestinians, we ought to be able to talk to each other.”
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said Shahak emphasized that there “needed to be a national purpose upon which all Israelis could agree. … I found him personable and articulate.”
Shahak came to the city at the invitation of Marvin Sirota, president of the Israel Humanitarian Foundation, as part of the group’s efforts to educate American Jews about pressing Israeli issues. He said Shahak convinced him that he “truly believes Israel is suffering from a fragmented society.”
“Now that he is finished with the army, it is his mission to unite the ultra-Orthodox with the secular, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi,” Sirota said.
His organization’s executive vice president, Stanley Abrams, said Shahak was “received and spoke in general terms — there was nothing startling. He took questions and seemed to answer them adequately.”
In The Jewish Week interview, Shahak made the following observations:
# Israel should look for a solution to its war in Southern Lebanon and not unilaterally withdraw from its security zone there because that would “risk the lives of too many Israelis.”
# He agreed with last week’s Knesset resolution requiring a referendum before withdrawing from the Golan Heights. He said such a referendum should spell out security guarantees and the nature of future relations with Syria.
“We will convince them that it is not just a piece of paper but it is an answer to our security needs, to normalization, to relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, to future water problems, and to questions of settlements and borders. … I believe we will enjoy the support of most Israelis because most want peace.”
# Jordan’s new Crown Prince Abdullah of Jordan “resembles his father very much [in terms of character]. I think he’s a leader. I don’t know if he is going to be the successor. Stability in Jordan is very important for all of us, not only Israelis but first and foremost for Jordanians. Stability in Jordan is needed for the final agreement with the Palestinians, it is essential for renewing dialogue with the Syrians, and therefore everyone should help do whatever can be done to keep stability in Jordan.
# “I don’t think we need arbitrators deeply in the [peace] process. I think that we have to make peace between the two of us — us and the Palestinians. We know what we need for peace. … I think that the Wye accord is agreed and it will be implemented. No doubt that the coming elections are delaying certain things, but the Wye accord is not the end of the process. The Wye accord is only another station along the way. … Of course I support them [but] I would do it in a different way. I think that the spirit of the peace process is not written on paper; it’s trust between people. We lost the trust — much of the trust — and we have to rebuild it between leaders and between the people.”