Don’t call her the ‘Russian candidate’: Meet Ksenia Svetlova

An interview with the latest addition to Tzipi Livni’s ‘Zionist Camp,’ on the heavy price Israel will pay if it can’t solve the Palestinian conflict, how much Russian and Mizrahi immigrants have in common, and whether the Labor/Livni list will consider forming a new government with Netanyahu.

Ksneia Svetlova with Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni (Photo by Louisa Green)
Ksenia Svetlova with Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni (Photo by Louisa Green)

In the Israeli electoral system, party heads often times reserve spots on their parliamentary slates for candidates of their choosing — usually representing geographic regions, people of certain ethnic origins or for women.

It would be a big mistake to reduce Ksenia Svetlova to the “Russian candidate” of the Zionist Camp, the joint list comprised of the Labor party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua. Svetlova is a veteran field reporter, very eloquent, a senior Arab world analyst for Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 and regularly writes for a long list of distinguished international publications.

Svetlova is more knowledgable about Palestinian society and politics than most of the people with whom she is heading into the Knesset, is a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University, speaks four languages, and is the latest in a string of journalists who are making the jump to politics.

Speaking with +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call, Svetlova explains why she believes Tzipi Livni still has the best chance to make peace, what to do with settlement blocs and the price Israel will pay if it doesn’t make peace.

The — likely — future Knesset member discusses how the experience of Russian immigrants to Israel is similar to Jews from Arab countries, reveals her favorite Arab singer and the phenomenon of journalists moving into politics.

Is it strange for you to be on the other side?

It is definitely strange, like starting anything new. I held the microphone on the other side of the camera for so long, so yes, it’s very strange. But I didn’t flinch, it’s a new era in my life. Anyway, journalism will always be there, I hope. It won’t disappear.

What do you think about the trend of journalists going into politics?

It’s something that’s always happened; we know that from French and British politics. After you cover things for so long and criticize what others are doing, it’s very tempting to make the jump and do it yourself.

It’s an expression of despair about the current situation. It would have been very easy for me to continue doing what I was doing up until now. I’m well-known enough, I write for various international media outlets; I’m not dependent on my job for financial reasons or anything else — the opposite. But this is such a critical situation, a situation in which most of my friends who think of themselves as Zionists and served here — both Israeli-born and immigrants — are thinking of emigrating. That’s a huge problem that I never thought we would have to deal with. But I never really wanted to be a politician; I dreamed of being a journalist since I was eight years old.

Is the ‘Zionist Camp’ really the place where your politics and values are?

Yes. However, I have no delusions. It’s a large party and like in any large political party there are drawbacks, things that aren’t done properly, especially in relation to immigrants. As an immigrant, there are things that make my heart skip a beat. In the early 1990s, when we were arriving, there was a campaign going on against the immigration [of Soviet Jewry]: they said they’re all drug addicts, whores, etc., and [former Labor Minister] Ora Namir who sent my parents’ generation to go work picking oranges. But things are changing.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by
Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by

What will be your main priority as a Knesset member?

First we’ll have to see what our position is in the next Knesset. I hope that we form the next government, in which case we’ll have more opportunities. But there is also no shortage of important things to do from the opposition.

One of the most important things related to my field of interest is advancing the peace process. We are stuck, and it’s not fair to our people or to the other nation that lives here. If we don’t resolve this conflict we will continue to pay very heavy political, security and economic price.

Tzipi Livni led negotiations with the Palestinians, and failed. What reason is there to assume that this time it will be different?

She ran the negotiations in a government that had a problem with her from the very beginning. It is a process that the entire political echelon must stand behind. It’s not a job for one woman, no matter how successful she is. I hear from the Palestinians that they very much appreciated her, but it’s not a one-man game. Just like soccer, you need an entire team, and now that team exists.

Do you think the Palestinians would be willing to give Tzipi Livni another chance?

I’m sure of it. It’s a fact that they said they will wait until after Israel’s elections to put forth the Arab-Palestinian UN resolution. They wouldn’t be waiting if they didn’t think there would be somebody to talk to on the Israeli side after the elections. It’s true that there is a lot of despondency and skepticism on both sides, but the status quo is beginning to break and we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg. It can get a whole lot worse.

There is worrisome radicalization taking place on both sides. A little over a week ago I was in Ramallah and I saw that they recently dedicated Yahya Ayyash Square; a new city square that Abu Mazen named after a Hamas figure. Also in Egypt there is a culture of hatred. We are extolling [Egyptian President] al-Sisi because he is shutting down Hamas’ tunnels — acting on his own interests, by the way, not ours — but at every book fair there are entire shelves of hate-filled books about Israel and Judaism. Does that threaten our peace treaty with Egypt? No. There was never normalization with Egypt, but we have a peace deal that is still standing.

Ksneia Svetlova (Photo by Yasmin Yaira)
Ksenia Svetlova (Photo by Yasmin Yaira)

What are the parameters for ending the conflict, in your view?

Borders are first. A state must have clear and accepted borders that it can defend, both militarily and diplomatically.

Settlement blocs?

I believe that the large settlement blocs will remain under our control.

Including East Jerusalem?

No. There is a lot of “East Jerusalem,” but there are also a lot of layers. Jerusalem was never a city that stretched all the way from Ramallah in the north to Ma’ale Adumim in the south. That’s not East Jerusalem. The Shuafat Refugee Camp is east of Jerusalem, it’s not East Jerusalem.

Do you think it’s wise to be building in the settlement blocs when there aren’t negotiations taking place?

There are people whom the state sent to live there, and therefore, we have a responsibility to them. I know a lot of people, especially new immigrants, who didn’t even know they were beyond the Green Line when they arrived. So we shouldn’t build schools for them? We shouldn’t build them kindergartens? I think the Palestinians also understand the difference between establishing new geographically strategic settlements and building inside settlement blocs that will in any case remain inside the State of Israel.

You are one of very few women who knows the Palestinians better than most of the other candidates in the party, and yet, the slot for a “security expert” is being filled by a man. Is that not frustrating?

On that topic, as opposed to many other issues which I need to learn, like social issues, I absolutely know what I am talking about and I have clear views. On that issue I will certainly make my voice heard; I will have access to the decision makers and I will make sure that I am heard.

How do you think your political views will be received by immigrants from the former Soviet Union?

It’s fair to assume that they will be met with mixed feelings, just like when I expressed them in my coverage and research on the Arab world. But I think that there are more and more people, especially in the younger generations, who are more receptive.

When I went to the south Hebron Hills and filmed Palestinians living without running water in caves because they live in a military firing zone, and then how the children in [the settlement of] Susya have swimming pools, they accused me of putting out left-wing propaganda. But that’s the reality. One of the problems is that there is simply a lack of information. And there are other reasons, of course, like the rejection of socialism, despite the fact that the Labor party has not been socialist for a long time. None of that, however, stopped the Russian population from voting for Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.

The Russian immigrants arrived at a sensitive moment, when everything appeared to begin, and when it all ended. The first checkpoints in the West Bank were erected in 1992, and already in 1994, the first bus bombings began. These are people who came from a relatively stable place and suddenly found themselves in a world where buses explode every day. And they didn’t know what it was like here before that, they didn’t experience the shaky coexistence that preceded that period. They were told that there was nothing here before 1948. That creates fear.

Maybe they didn’t meet Palestinians but they did meet Mizrahi Jews. The mass immigration of Russians was viewed as a threat by many Mizrahi Jews in Israel’s peripheral communities.

In every society, immigration brings out deep-rooted fears because it threatens your place in society. It’s a shame that it didn’t happen earlier, but I see a lot of initiatives and cooperation taking place. I meet with Prof. Shmuel Moreh every two weeks — we are working together to get UNESCO to preserve Jewish sites in Arab countries.

Russian immigrants and Mizrahis have a lot in common despite attempts to turn them against each other: the difficulty of immigration, high levels of poverty, and being stripped of dignity rooted in the cultures we left behind. Where is is all that in Israeli school books? It’s not. Why should we only learn about the Second Aliya (of European Jews).

It’s easier today to be more insistent about preserving your traditions. I, for instance, speak to my children in Russian. It’s important to me that they speak the language. It drives me crazy when I hear about [Jewish Mizrahi immigrants] who were forbidden from speaking Arabic. Why? We live in the Middle East, it’s the language! Or people who were laughed at when they played Farid al-Atrash. It’s beautiful! I prefer Abdel Halim Hafez, but that’s a matter of taste. The attempts to catalogue it as an inferior culture is the same thing they tried to do with the Russians. In Russia, my mother wasn’t able to find work because her passport said she was Jewish. And when we got here we were labeled as Russians, with all of the negative connotations.

And now you find yourself on an election list with the Labor party, the descendants of the Mapai party, which nursed the idea of an Israeli melting pot that was largely responsible for cultural erasure. Do you feel comfortable with them?

Firstly, it’s not the party of Ashkenazi purity. It’s much more diverse. Labor is not the same Labor, just like Likud isn’t the same Likud of Menachem Begin.

What is the first proposed law you would want to work on?

We spoke mostly about issues of security, but I am very interested in dealing with middle-aged immigrants to Israel, regardless of their country of origin, who haven’t been able to retire. These are people who worked every day here, who worked their whole lives in their countries of origin, and they cannot survive on the minuscule pension payments they receive. People are being forced to choose between buying medication and paying their electric bill. I would want to start there, and I believe that we’ll find partners in other parties.

Speaking of partners: Forming a coalition with Netanyahu, yes or no?

I don’t believe that the leaders of the Zionist Camp believe in that, and I hope we won’t need to.

They haven’t ruled out the possibility.

They didn’t rule it out, but the feeling is that we won’t need to. I personally don’t believe that we can move forward together.

A version of this article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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