Donning a large Kippah and speaking only Hebrew with a Moroccan accent, Ultra-Orthodox Member of Knesset Yitzchak Vaknin stood out among the thousands of young, liberal activists at Sunday’s J-Street Conference in Washington DC. The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby filled the halls in the Washington Convention Center with 2,800 supporters including many young college students. Vaknin, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset for the Shas party, wowed the mostly left-wing audience with his conciliatory remarks. In an exclusive interview he argued that Israel must end the conflict with the Palestinians, also noting that it was important for the American public to see diverse Israeli perspectives on peace talks. Although Vaknin was dovish in his determination to reach his accord, he maintained certain hawkish views exclaiming, “I am opposed to even negotiating on Jerusalem.” In a wide-ranging interview discussing the Palestinian peace process, Supreme Court’s recent decision on African refugees, and his mission at J-Street, Vaknin sat down with the Exchange.
Can you please explain why you came to J-Street?
All of the time people come to J-Street from the left side of the political map. The left speaks and the right wing return territories. The extreme right, individuals who say that they won’t give up anything, are the ones who act and return land. It is important for those in the center of the political map to be heard here. Yet, the situation for security is important. The state of Israel does not need this crisis because it is not good for us. It is not healthy for the state. We have to reach a solution. This doesn’t mean that we should go like blind people to negotiations.
You said that your party is supportive of peace, but why are you the only member of Shas here and the only Shas MK to attend the Israeli-Palestinian joint initiative in Jerusalem?
I am not the only one. At the end of the day, the Rabbis decide and the council tells us how to act. The moment the Council says something in opposition to what I say, then I follow them. Many people believe in what I do that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must end. We can’t drag the negotiations out. I came here to say it is not good for us this situation that we find ourselves in. It is important for others to also hear this. Those who say we won’t do a deal and won’t advance negotiations; they will stay in the government. At the end of the day, the majority will decide. There is a majority behind a deal with the Palestinians. If Bennet will not be in the government, then Labor can join.
Regarding the issue of Jerusalem, most experts agree that Jerusalem must be divided in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians. What is your opinion?
My opinion is clear: I do not support negotiations on Jerusalem at all. Jerusalem is our capital and of course we are forbidden to speak on Jerusalem because if we speak about Jerusalem then we can discuss any other city in Israel.
How will Abbas accept a deal without Jerusalem?
It was a mistake of all previous leaders to even discuss Jerusalem. (An undivided) Jerusalem falls within a wide consensus of Israelis
Regarding African refugees: You said there is no room in Israel for all of the refugees. What about the verse “You shall love the stranger?” Isn’t this verse important for you as a religious party?
For those who have already entered Israel, you have to find a solution. We need to respect them and help them earn a living. This is completely clear. However, we need to stop this issue. I talked about this issue for years by blocking the border and reach a solution. If we can return some of them to their homes, then we should do this.
However, if there are approximately 50,000 African refugees in Israel, what should we do with them? Should we return them to Africa?
If, God forbid, I return them they will be killed, of course not. Of course we should prevent this and help them integrate. But if the situation is that they will leave and not cause their deaths, Israel needs to return them. Israel is a very small country. The (Africans) are taking away the Arabs’ livelihood. I am opposed to imprisoning the Africans for three years. As a Jewish nation this is a disgrace. We can’t allow this situation to continue with this immigrating numbers and creating a social crisis. We need to reach a solution.