Yohanan Plesner is a member of Knesset for the Kadima party. He was the head of the Knesset's Plesner committee, formed to explore the introduction of national service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs. In the fifth in a series of interviews with Israeli politicians ahead of the January elections, Plesner discusses the integration of Haredim into the IDF, the ideal Israeli coalition, and the role of American Jewry in Israeli politics. The previous guests in this series include Nitzan Horowitz, Meir Sheetrit, Danny Danon and Naftali Bennett.
What is the main topic or theme of the upcoming elections? Is it Iran? The peace process? The economy? What do you think is the real worry of the Israeli public today?
The politically mobilizing issues are definitely not security and diplomatic issues, because there is no perception that there is an immediate choice to be made. Even if we have different views or ideologies, there is a sense that that it would be difficult to affect a serious change in reality, so the question of security issues is more a question of competence: Who do you trust? Social and economic issues along with civic issues, integration of less fortunate communities - these are the kinds of issues that are no doubt mobilizing Israelis and might affect their choice, especially since the general sentiment is that we will have Netanyahu here for another term. So the question is, what flavor do you want to add to the next decision-making arena? Who do you trust on the questions of integration or expenditure? The questions to do with the sharing of the burden are something that we are pushing forward.
In this context, what is the markedly unique message that your party has to offer to the public?
We have two messages: Firstly, for those Israelis who think that there is a real need to integrate the ultra-Orthodox community and to prevent the disintegration of the current model of service, we are the authentic party that can actually deliver on those issues. And I would recommend that Israelis do not go for any of the imitations; we’ve been doing this for the past few years. [Kadima leader Shaul] Mofaz obviously set up the Nahal Haredi, as chief of staff, and [as defense minister] the Ben-Bassat committee on pay for soldiers and on shortening the time of service. And throughout this term we really fought both to cancel the Tal Law and to come up with new legislation. So we are very committed to that issue, and now we are focused too on an equal sharing of the burden - we wanted there to be equal pay, so that soldiers would earn as much as married men studying in yeshiva. We are representing the most important and least represented sector in society.
Secondly we have a group of moderate security minded experienced people who can definitely serve in key positions when it comes to managing the national security policy. Not just Mofaz, but [former Shin Bet deputy director] Yisrael Hasson, and Doron Avital, who was commander of Sayeret Matkal.
What would be the best coalition for Israel after the election, and do you think your party should consider joining a coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu?
I think that the best coalition is a national unity coalition of a centrist force; one that has a centrist agenda for dealing with an equal sharing of the burden, dealing with electoral reform, and a moderate security policy that is accompanied by a domestic reform agenda, and diplomatic initiatives. I think Netanyahu will always prefer a coalition with the extreme right and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and therefore the likelihood of having a secular, moderate coalition depends on the outcome of the election.
What kind of relationship would you expect the next prime minister to have with President Obama? How would you improve U.S.-Israel relations during President Obama's second term?
I expect any Israeli prime minister and any American president to have a very close and intimate relationship, because this is a matter of vital importance to the national security of both nations, and therefore has nothing to do with the personal relations between any two individuals. For this to happen, both sides have to make an effort; this obviously means for the American president to demonstrate concern for Israel's security needs, and we Israelis have to be more attentive to American views and political needs, and of course not to meddle in internal American politics.
Do you think American Jews should take sides in Israeli elections, or just support the winning coalition after the event? If you do think American Jewry should have a voice, what kind of involvement and support do you have in mind?
Firstly there is the importance of the work of such organizations as AIPAC, which are working on solidifying and strengthening the relations between Israel and America, no matter who's in government in either place, and this important work should be continued.
Then when talking about what's happening in the State of Israel, its views and policies very much affect the future of American Jews, because Israel is in effect leading the Jewish people, and 40 percent of the Jewish people live in north America. Therefore, American Jews have a vested interest and a clear stake in whatever the outcome of the elections, and I think that certain forms of involvement are definitely legitimate.