Meretz USA had a lunch program with MK Avshalom Vilan (affectionately known as Abu) on Wednesday, Sept. 17, the day of the Kadima party leadership primary. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni narrowly defeated Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz (the latter is a former armed forces chief of staff and an ex-defense minister) along with Avi Dichter and Meir Sheetrit, two other cabinet ministers who trailed badly.
Abu is skeptical about Livni because he sees her as too cautious to really deliver progress toward peace. A case in point, he reports, is that Livni did nothing in favor of the Knesset bill he is co-sponsoring with Colette Avital for the government to offer to buy the homes of thousands of settlers living in West Bank settlements beyond the security/separation barrier. He knows that a good 40,000 or more of these 80,000 settlers (those east of the barrier) are desperate to leave the West Bank if they can retrieve enough equity from their homes to buy new domiciles in Israel proper. As it is now, their locations in front of the fence/wall has rendered their properties nearly worthless on the open market, leaving these families without the economic means to return to Israel.
Livni has indicated to Abu that she would support such a measure after an agreement with the Palestinians, but this misses the point: Abu and Avital’s bill would facilitate negotiations by easing tensions and peacefully dismantling settlements.
The vicissitudes of Israeli politics are such that he speculated that (unless he is indicted) Ehud Olmert could remain as caretaker prime minister until as late as May. Complications would emerge if Livni cannot pull together a new coalition within 42 days (not counting the High Holy Days and Sukkot), meaning that an election would be scheduled in the following three months – probably in March – and then another 42 days (perhaps interrupted by Passover) for the winner to put together his or her coalition.
Going against the grain, he argued that – since the disastrous conduct of the Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006 – Olmert has actually been a fairly good prime minister in moving the peace process forward on the Palestinian and Syrian fronts. (Knowing Abu, I’m sure he deplores the settlement activities planned for East Jerusalem and environs in recent months.)
When asked, Abu reminded the audience that Israel has no real military option against Iran’s nuclear program, because Iran’s program is distributed among about 60 sites, requiring a sustained air campaign that Israel does not have the capacity to mount. He estimated that Israel would need an air force ten times larger than it has. He also believes that Israel should not be so confrontational regarding Iran; he sees this issue as an international problem requiring international efforts at a solution. Livni’s main and now defeated competitor in Kadima, Mofaz (born in Iran) has been especially hawkish in his utterances, while Livni has been quoted as saying that Israel can live with a nuclear Iran. Abu acknowledges that Israel could benefit from Livni’s moderate impulses regarding the employment of Israel’s military.
In the meantime, Abu identifies Iran as funding the tunnels from Egypt, where arms and explosives, as well as some civilian goods, are being smuggled into the Gaza Strip. His remedy would be for Israel to settle things diplomatically with Syria, and for Syria to disengage from its alliance with Iran and to stop supporting Hamas’s armed wing as part of an arrangement with Israel.
I asked Abu about his opinion on reforming the electoral system to eliminate the bad effects of Israel’s extreme form of proportional representation (PR). He said that he favors an increase in the vote threshold to “2.5%” or the number of votes needed to elect at least three MKs instead of the current two (actually, not a precise figure, because votes for party lists that don’t exceed the threshold are discounted). He also said that PR represents a core value of Israeli democracy because it allows every sector of Israeli society to have a voice. Moreover, raising the threshold further would endanger Agudat Yisrael – the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox and also the Arabs. He’s more concerned about the three Arab parties, because a threshold of 4-5% could wipe them out. In his opinion, there are too many differences among the Arab parties for them to combine into a single list.