Nachman Shai: Veteran Labor Voice seeks Return to Knesset

Former three-term Knesset member is motivated to run in the March 23 elections to create a better Israel for his children and grandchildren, provide a voice for the vital senior population, topple Prime Minister Netanyahu, and restore the Labor Party’s legacy. 

By pre-election polling, Shai, 74, is on the borderline of securing a seat in in the election for the 24th Knesset on March 23 as the eighth person on the Labor list.  Shai has doubts that he will win a seat or that Netanyahu will lose the premiership, yet he is hopeful for an anti-Bibi coalition that could restore public trust in the government and help society heal after the pandemic, severe economic downturn, and more than a decade of Netanyahu in office. He also explained a scenario in which lawmakers could find a way to force Netanyahu from power.   

Shai was a former reporter and communications professional best known for serving as the Israel Defense Forces spokesman during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.  He spent a decade as a Knesset Labor member, serving as its deputy speaker of the 19th and 20th Knessets. In 2019-20,  he was a visiting professor at Emory University and now fills a similar role at Duke University. While at Emory, he participated in several CIE education programs, and was regularly engaged in speaking to many who remembered the clarity of his explanations and reassuring tones during those days three decades ago when SCUD missiles from Iraq struck Israel. 

Michael Jacobs conducted the interview on February 16, CIE Communications Consultant. The transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Jacobs: Why did you choose to run again?

Shai: This is my duty as an Israeli. It is very simple. I am very much concerned about the direction the country is going. And I want to do my best at this stage, which is like the 90th minute of a soccer game; the last minute to change the course the country has been going under Netanyahu’s government, which seems to be endless.

He has made many mistakes, especially in the past few years, and he should now focus on his trial. 

I am not sure that Bibi is going to lose. I would say a higher prospect for him to stay in power. But even if I end up in the opposition, I will do my best. It is a personal commitment to the State of Israel, to my children, grandchildren. I would like to safeguard their future in a democratic, moral, just, safe state.

Jacobs: You didn’t run the last three elections.

Shai: I didn’t run because I wasn’t in the country. But now they opened the list and said, finally, there are primaries, and anyone who would like to run was invited to run. And I said to myself, “This is an opportunity to be back on the horse, at the wheel.”

Eighth place is not safe. At this stage, it seems like six mandates will be given to the Labor Party, which is a huge, huge achievement in comparison with the last three campaigns. The party almost disappeared. 

Even if I am not a Knesset member, I will still be very happy to see Labor survive and continue because Labor has a certain role in Israel’s not only history, but present and future as well. And it was really a political tragedy to see Labor just disappearing.

Jacobs: Why do you think Labor bounced back? 

Shai: Labor made many mistakes, ideological mistakes and personal mistakes. And we have not raised new leadership. Also, in general, the Israeli public moved from left to center and now from center to right. 

It seems like Israelis look at politics like “A Star Is Born.” Where are the new stars? What is wrong with the last star? 

Blue and White soared like a star. They gained 35 mandates, which is unbelievable, and now they are hardly passing the threshold and probably will not get any representative in the upcoming Knesset. So this is not a party.

Labor is a party. Labor has roots. Roots do not disappear. Even if you don’t see them on the surface, they’re still down very deep in the ground. And those roots can give new life to a new tree, to a new plant and to a new party.

Jacobs: How much are people in Israel voting on ideological differences, and how much are they voting for Netanyahu, Sa’ar, Lapid or whomever?

Shai: We call it strategic voting, which means “Never mind what your political identity is and what your ideology is. Are you for or against Bibi?” Not much ideology.

We should learn the lesson from Blue and White. We should stick to the relatively old parties which have been around for a long time. You can judge them. How did they vote? What did they do while in government? What did they do in opposition?

Labor has been there for over 100 years. Likud as well. Labor and Likud are the only ones who still stick to the primary system. If there are no party primaries, who makes the decision? Who runs the show? One individual that happened to be creative enough to bring some people and to run for the Knesset. That is not democracy.

Jacobs: What would a post-Bibi Israeli government look to do?

Shai: Basically, I think, to gain the public confidence or trust in the government, in the Knesset, in the elected political law, democratic institutes, including the Supreme Court. It all eroded under Bibi. The public does not trust the government, nor the Knesset. People just do what they believe is the best for them, and it works. There is no one to actually enforce the law on them. That was the situation with the corona, except the decision to buy vaccines, which was nice. People do right now what they want. They do not ask permission from anyone. You can declare lockdown 10 times a day. People will go out and do whatever is on their mind.

First, they have to trust the government and to be sure, that any decision is made based on the public interest and not on Bibi’s interest or Likud’s interest.

It’s time to heal Israel socially. The divides are huge: Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox/secular, between left and right, between Arabs and Jews, rich and poor. Poverty is very much around and will get worse as a result of the corona. We should repair the country and create again a kind of social solidarity, which was the secret weapon of Israel for so many years.

And then, of course, the economy because Bibi was very generous, and he is now even more generous than ever before allocating money. He’s the new Bezos of Israel. Who wants money? Who needs money?

We may recommend anyone [for prime minister]: the leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, or Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope, anyone that openly, publicly, will be committed to end Netanyahu’s government or to end Netanyahu’s era. That will be the unwavering condition.

Jacobs: If Netanyahu loses the prime ministership, does he go away? Or does he become more determined to come back next election?

Shai: He’s a fighter as a politician, and also I should complement him, praise him, for his political achievements. It’s not really a simple matter to run the country for so many years in many coalitions and changing partners. 

If he loses, he will step down, but maybe for a while he will stay in the Knesset because while you’re still running your trial, it’s better to be a Knesset member.

One of the outcomes that people do not imagine right now: that Bibi, for this reason or another, steps down, and Likud still stays in the government without Bibi. That can be the case. If Likud gives up on Netanyahu right now and says, “Well, Mr. Prime Minister, you are now the problem, not the solution. Please move aside because we would like to stay in power. We are the largest party. We’ll continue with the ultra-Orthodox or with Lieberman. We’ll have a coalition overnight,” and it will be the same coalition or a similar one without Netanyahu. Perfect.

When you tell the Likud government ministers, “Guys, Netanyahu just lost. You’re going to sit there far away in the hall, somewhere with three staff and with an office which is the size of my kitchen here, and that’s it. And you will run your opposition life from now on.” No, no, no, it doesn’t work once you touch the magic of power and you have your own budget. And every second day you make a reform and a revolution, and you change things from A to Z. You are everywhere, and you got media, and your name is all over the country.

They’re not going to give up on that.

Jacobs: How long can an anti-Netanyahu coalition hold together when that’s the only thing binding it?

Shai: It will be very stable. Maybe there’ll be a rotation of three. In one Knesset term, four years, there’ll be three prime ministers. You compare it to the past year, it’s much, much more stable. I can easily see a coalition of Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yamina, Lieberman, even Labor. If not, the ultra-Orthodox, and you got it.

Jacobs: How is the campaigning going to go?

Shai: Zoom campaigning. You didn’t ask me, how did I run my own primaries? I ran it from this kitchen. I had an iPad, a MacBook and two phones, and I don’t know what else. All together, I sent two text messages to the voters, and I made a few hundred phone calls. That’s it. This was my campaign. I’m here. They are seven hours ahead of us. So when I was sleeping, my contenders among the other Labor candidates were working very hard. I had no time to do anything. I had only three days.

It has never been done in Israel history that the candidate was running his campaign remotely as I did. All the campaigns are in person. You’re going to the polls. You shake hands. You talk to people. So it’s really a miracle that I was even elected to the list.

If I make it, it will be a historical success. It’s also a matter of age. We have currently over 1 million Israeli senior citizens, like 12% of the population. Soon it will be 15%, 16%, because life expectancy in Israel is growing all the time. It’s one of the highest in the world. And I feel like I’m going to be their representative in the Knesset because they are not always nicely treated by both the Israeli society and Israeli government.

This is an asset to the State of Israel that there are that many Israeli senior citizens. Even at this age they can give back to the society and be a productive partner in building Israel.

By running, I did something very important. I said to my colleagues, “Guys, we are not done yet. We still have a role in Israel’s life.”

The good old days are in front of us. We have had good old days, and we have good new days in front of us. This is the message I’m trying to convey.

Further analyses by Nachman Shai, see “The Fall of Liberal Zionism,” Part I,

 (1:15 minutes)