Stav Shaffir: My Fight Against Corruption in Israel

Stav Shaffir, center, stands with supporters during a mock election at a high school in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv December 6, 2012. Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israeli political parties are in the midst of a primary season, to determine their lists for the upcoming parliament. Yesterday, the Labor party led by Isaac Herzog held its primary. Today the Bayit HaYehudi will hold its elections.

The Labor party primary went off without a hitch. In contrast to the Likud primary last week, (whose results are still being disputed in court), when the results of the votes by Labor party members were announced this morning there seemed to be no ill will. The major surprise of the election was the fact that the former head of the Labor party, Shelly Yacimovich easily won the first spot on the list, and Stav Shaffir (the youngest member of the Knesset) won the second spot.

Coming in third was Shaffir's co-leader of the protest movement, Izik Shmueli. The top five places on the combined Labor/HaT'nua list that includes Herzog and Tzipi Livini, will now have five women, compared to none at the top of the Likud list. Labor candidates are now by far the youngest candidates in the election, with a woman under 30 now in a top position – something that might engage a new young generation of voters, who have been apathetic as of late, and as a result have chosen to be "no-shows" on election day.

As the author of Newsweek's Tel Aviv Diary I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce readers to some of Israel's key politicians.

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Labor Member of the Knesset Stav Shaffir. At 29 years old, she is the youngest member of the Knesset.

Shaffir has made a name for herself as one of the leader of the Israeli protest movement in the summer of 2011. While many new members of the Israeli Knesset, especially member of the opposition, fade into near oblivion after being elected. Shaffir avoided that fate by being a very very vocal member of the Knesset Finance committee, vigorously objecting to what she implied were a repeating series of improper actions.

Her relentless objection to actions of the Committee Chair, favoring the right-wing Bayit Hayehudi party, resulted in her being forcibly removed from the committee room a number of times, and earned her the reputation of being the enfant terrible of the Israeli parliament.

I was not sure what to expect before meeting Shaffir. However, after spending 45 minutes interviewing her I came away duly impressed by this onetime Air Force flight cadet, whose command of the English language is exemplary, and whose understanding of Israel's political reality is striking. Her impressive victory yesterday in the Labor primary certainly confirmed that initial judgement.

Here are edited excerpts from that interview.

What made you go into politics?

I never planned to be a politician. When we led the protest movement, three years ago, I was employed as a journalist, studying for my masters and working as an activist. I wanted to make change, to fight for specific causes.

Politics seemed to me to be a corrupt place. I think this is the perception that most young people in Israel are holding. They don't believe that politics can be influential in a positive way on their lives. When we led the protest movement, we thought, naively, that if we mobilize enough people to the streets to demonstrate for social justice, the government will understand that this is what the public wants and will do something to change.

It took me many months, (nearly a year) after the last big rally (the half a million rally) to understand that unless we enter politics and make a change, it will not happen. We do not have the privilege of thinking that politics is too dirty or too corrupt.

How do you think your army service and your time out of the country impacted your thinking regarding Israel and politics?

My army service was split into three parts. Before I was drafted I took on another year to volunteer in an "at risk" school in Tiberias. I lived with other teachers. We taught and became guides for children from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Then I went into the military's pilots' course. My year was one of the first courses open to women. I think it was only the fifth year that women were even allowed to try to become pilots. This was an amazing experience. I was one of a group of very special people who were very ideological and very dedicated. That was especially true among the women. It was an adventurous and interesting experience.

After five months I was transferred to the army's newspaper. This was another interesting experience. I covered the disengagement process and I covered the second Lebanon war. I focused mainly on what Israel was doing in the West Bank, so I got to learn a lot of things I did not know before.

Until my military service I do not think I ever crossed the Green Line with my family. In the army I got to see both sides. I met and stayed with a number of settlers. Before the disengagement I lived in Gush Katif for a while, to get the feel and understand the needs of the settlers who were evacuated. I covered a lot of the stories of the Palestinians who lived in the West Bank and I got a number of different narratives.

Following my military service I wanted to continue on the path of conflict resolution, so I got a scholarship to study in London for three years in the Olive Tree Program, together with a group of fellow Israelis and Palestinians. This was another very interesting experience, because were a group of people that were not from one single ideological position—we were left-wing people and very right-wing people (there were two settlers within the group).

We studied and learned from people from Northern Ireland. We got not only inspiration, but real knowledge on how to resolve conflict.

What bothered me most was that many of my friends did not want to return home afterwards. Many of my Israeli friends both here, and those who lived abroad did not believe there was a chance to make real change. They slowly got stuck in the position that they should only take care of their own lives and try to make the best situation for their personal families.

This is very not Israeli. There is something about being an Israeli. There is a story in what Israel is and what Zionism is—that we don't give up.

What was your biggest surprise being in the Knesset?

On the negative side, I came into politics with a lot of disbelief in the system. I believed there was a lot corruption and I believed there was a lot of money that did not go to the right places—like to our education system or towards solving our housing problem. After a few months in the finance committee I realized I had been too optimistic about the system. It was even worse than I imagined.

After sitting in the finance committee every day I discovered a secret system of budget transfers from within the Israeli budget on a weekly basis, and these changes were made continuously throughout the year as much as 54 billion shekels [$13.6 billion] out of a 320 billion [$80.6 billion]-shekel budget.

A lot of that money goes to places that most of the Israeli public does not know about and that even most Israeli Knesset members don't even know. I also discovered that many Israeli Knesset members collaborated with this system and that the amount of money transferred to unknown locations became bigger each and every year.

In the beginning, as I started to investigate this matter, many of the more experienced Knesset members told me, "You should not touch that issue, it's not good for you". Others said, "We have been doing this for years, even decades, and it is not going to change." But I was very persistent. I started to interrogate the representatives of the Finance Ministry who came before the Finance Committee and I began to expose many secrets from that secret budget.

The Israeli public is paying for extreme right-wing NGOs, run by people from the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party [who] get money for the State. I can't say this is done illegally. It is in the grey zone. How it happens and where the money goes, most Knesset members do not know. It goes to organizations and private companies that get lots of money from our public Treasury, with no explanation for their projects (some of which do not even exist.) Throughout the year the government transferred 1.2 billion shekels [$300 million] to the settlements—as a bonus—beyond what they were given at the beginning of the year.

How and why why do they hide that transfer of money? I don't think it's even a question of right-wing or left-wing ideology. It's a question of transparency. If the government is doing something they are proud of, they would expose what they are doing to the public. Why would they be doing it in secret?

So I guess they're either not very proud of what they are doing, or they don't want people in the Negev and the Galilee to think "we don't get enough money" (which is true, they get less), or that they are transferring money to places that are not entirely legal (i.e. to the NGO close to the Jewish Home Party.)

Now that I see the corruption scandal with Yisrael Beiteinu (Avigdor Lieberman's party) my bet is that it is not going to stay only within that one party. I saw up close how the system works in the Finance committee. After a year of fighting this, now everyone is beginning to see how the system works.

I believe it is possible to change things. After a year of fighting this battle. I have forced the Treasury to publish the entire secret budget online—so it's no longer a secret.

Are you surprised by the extent of the corruption scandal?

No, I think it is still going to get bigger and wider.

If you were prime minister tomorrow what would you do about the Palestinian situation?

After the election, when [Isaac] Herzog, leader of my party becomes the PM, our government will enter into negotiations; negotiations to actually reach an agreement, and not just to be in negotiations. This is the most urgent problem we have.

[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is under the perception that we can manage the conflict, because Netanyahu is not willing to get out of any territory. Even though he has said it for the international media, he didn't mean it. He thinks we could manage it and we can remain in a relatively good place, fighting the Palestinians in the international community.

But he is wrong. During the last five years we have had four rounds of fighting with Gaza. No one has felt safe in Jerusalem for some time and he has no plans to deal with the situation only crazy ideas from people like Naftali Bennett.

What if the Palestinians are not willing to make the concessions Israel needs?

I think that the Arab initiative is something we need to adopt (with minor changes) and bring the international community into that understanding. It is not only a conflict between us and the Palestinians.

Jordan and Egypt should be involved in a solution, because we are all fighting against terror today. It's not only Israel who is fighting terror, it's also the United States, it is also Europe. We must collaborate. If we get all the moderate forces to collaborate and make the Israel-Palestinian solution part of a greater solution in the war against terror, we can reach a solution. The more partners we have in a solution, the better that solution will be.

You are the first of your generation to enter politics seriously. Where to do you see yourself and your generation ten years from now?

I see myself continuing to dedicate all my time to making Israeli society better. I know that in ten years' time, if we work well, we will be in a much better position as a society. I put a lot of effort into bringing young people into politics and into developing an understanding that politics is something we have to take responsibility for.

In ten years' time we will have a much more transparent and decent political system and our democracy will become much stronger. The fact that Israel is suffering from socio-economic gaps that we never had before is a result of our political corruption.

There is enough money in the system to solve the problem of poverty, and the problem of housing, and to make our public hospitals much better. It is just a matter of making the decision.

Today the ideology of the government is just to survive as a government. It's funny. Netanyahu is the son of a historian, but 15 years in the future, when historians look back at his period as prime minister, what will they say? He did not leave a trace. There is nothing he did which he could be proud of in any field—not in the security field, not in the socio-economic field. He failed. He is not courageous enough to do anything.

We, in our generation, which is the third generation for Israel, need to take the inspiration of our grandparents' generation that built this country with so much courage and so much hope. We need to take everything that we learned and the solutions that exist in the 21st century to make Israel the best place to be.

Media historian Marc Schulman is the editor of An archive of his reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here. He is also a columnist for the Times of Israel.