New Knesset Members Seek Fresh Approaches


Erel Margalit, one of Israel’s most successful venture capitalists, plans to apply his entrepreneurial acumen to Israeli politics as a freshman member of the Knesset.

“I’m refreshing the concept of the pioneer in Israel,” the Labor Party member explained during a brief visit to New York this past week. “It used to be about draining swamps. Now it’s about social activism.”

His ambitious agenda focuses on bringing economic growth and social justice to wider segments of the society, including the haredi and Arab populations, and reinvigorating the peace process.

Also in town last week, and interviewed a day later, was Dov Lipman, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who is one of the 19 eclectic members from Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party. Though he wears a yarmulke and beard, and attended Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, the former Marylander says his goal is “to do what’s best for Israel,” not just one part of the population.

He said the haredi parties, which have been shut out of the coalition for the first time in many years, had been “milking the system,” focused on funding their own yeshivas and institutions, and that his party is “the first to push for religious tolerance.”

Conversations with these two of the 48 new members of Knesset lend credence to the belief that the old ways of Israeli politics, with backroom deals and parochial interests, are out, at least for now. Theirs is a more open and consensus-seeking style.

Margalit says his approach to his new political role is as “an entrepreneur,” seeking a “buy-in” with fellow members “on what we can agree on” rather than focusing on differences.

He cited as an example dealing with the haredim or the Israeli Arabs in finding economic opportunities for them.

Margalit also calls for more creativity on the peace front, asserting that Israel is a “start-up nation” when it comes to technology but “a stagnant nation’” in dealing with the Palestinians. He offers a number of “trust-building” measures he would like to see Israel carry out, including fewer checkpoints, limited settlement construction and releasing Arab prisoners. There is also a strong economic component to his proposal, calling for creating a large network of joint Israeli-Palestinian “incubators merging expertise and ideas from our two cultures.” The major proposal is for an economic “Marshall Plan for the Mideast,” with international funds for free trade zones to invigorate and modernize “antiquated petro-economies.”

“Imagination is lacking from the process,” says Margalit, who believes a political solution without a business factor is doomed.

For all of his proposals, though, Margalit says he feels a sense of humility to be in government. “I’m hungry again,” after years of business success, he says. “I need to learn the rules of the game. First you have to listen,” he says, “and I am doing dynamic listening.”

Lipman came here to speak as well as listen. As a member of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, he addressed a number of Jewish groups. He said he is concerned many American Jews feel alienated from Israel because of “religious extremism” among haredi parties whose policies were more restrictive than embracing. The same applies for Israelis.

“It hurts me to hear Jews [in Israel] say ‘I hate Judaism and I hate that I hate Judaism.’

“We lost our way,” he says of Israeli policies on religion, “and my message is that we are making changes now,” but they will be “incremental,” by necessity. “We are not separating religion from state, but rather from politics.”

Lipman thinks Natan Sharansky’s plan to provide access for all Jews at the Western Wall is a positive step, and he is working on improving job opportunities for haredim. Educational programs to improve their work skills have had a 50 percent dropout rate, he said, because the young men have no training in math or English.

The solution, he asserted, is make such training mandatory. There is only so much one can accomplish discussing these matters with the heads of yeshivas, according to Lipman. “We’re not forcing them, we want to work with them. But the government is going to have to take the funds that were going to support kollels [advanced rabbinic studies] and put them into these educational programs” to train them for competitive jobs.

Lipman is hopeful peace talks with the Palestinians can be renewed, and understands that land will have to be ceded. “I love parts of Israel that we might have to give up,” he said, but “we have a commitment to try to make peace.”