Just before the slates for the upcoming election were closed last month, Gesher Party chairwoman Orli Levi-Abekasis announced that Dadi Perlmutter, an Israeli who until five years ago was executive vice president at Intel, would be No. 2 on her ticket. Political observers wondered how Perlmutter, a member of the “white tribe,” could be joining hands with a party formed to battle for the disenfranchised.
But it seemed like a good fit to Perlmutter, 64, who is active in Tsofen, which seeks to develop high-tech in the Arab community, and who doesn’t forgo any opportunity to talk about the importance of strengthening Israel’s social and geographic periphery.
“I’ve met dozens of people in recent months, including those who had been in politics and left, young people volunteering with various nonprofits, people dealing with the interface between religion and state, senior people in the economy and activists in the Ethiopian community,” he says. “Some of the people I consulted with told me, ‘Go meet Orli and see.’ So I contacted her, we met and we saw that we have a common language. We are coming from different directions, true, but that’s how interesting connections are made. Look at the people she’s brought to the party – it’s people who’ve done things, not politicians.”
Those others in the Gesher slate’s top five are Prof. Yifat Biton, a jurist who focuses on feminist criticism; outgoing Construction and Housing Ministry director general Hagai Resnick; and Gilad Samama, former head of the Justice Ministry’s legal aid division.
While you talk about action, Levi-Abekasis tends to speak in populist slogans.
“In politics you have to speak in slogans. Most politicians speak that way. That’s what the audience consumes. Very few can delve into details. I don’t think that’s populism. People want to understand the general idea, and you have to develop the ability to transmit your credo in two minutes. I and the other party members can get deep into details, but first we have to be elected.”
People have been talking about equal opportunities for years. How are you different from the others?
“I’m coming at things from a different angle. A former chief of general staff is a chief of general staff – that’s what he grew into and knows how to do. I come from a different world than most politicians, from a totally different culture of thought, and I think I can have influence. In any case, I prefer that to complaining at home.”
And you think you have electoral value? You’re known in the high-tech community but the public, particularly Gesher’s target audience, doesn’t know you.
“I hope so. I get to audiences that apparently would be hard to get to without me. I can speak and try to persuade. In the end, politics has a brutal test of results.”
Perlmutter, who grew up in Ramat Gan in a home that didn’t have too much money, is one of the most impressive products of Israeli high-tech. He did his army service in the Paratroopers, and immediately after studying engineering in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, he began to work at Intel. Over the next 30 years he climbed the ladder almost to the top. He left five years ago when the board chose another candidate to be CEO.
He’s a rather conservative personality, compared to, say, Yizhar Shay, another high-tech representative and No. 20 on the Kahol Lavan ticket, who’s prominent on social networks and even broadcasts a regular online radio program.
Perlmutter doesn’t display the anger that Levi-Abekasis does in her speeches on social issues. Although he has often spoken about the need to bridge the socioeconomic gaps in Israeli society, over the years he has avoided criticizing the government responsible for those gaps.
The only time, so far, that Perlmutter has lost it was when Likud used the graves of Israel Defense Forces soldiers in an election ad to strike at the left.
“Any electioneering that involves bereaved families and soldiers is improper. Bereavement is part of my life, but that’s not a reason to support me. Bereaved families and soldiers should not be used in a campaign,” says Perlmutter, whose brother Ami was killed during the Yom Kippur War,
Have you read the attorney general’s accusations against the prime minister?
“I’ve read some of it. I’m not a lawyer, but my position is simple. Netanyahu is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, a prime minister is subject to different standards than an ordinary citizen. Even when we’re talking about a regular citizen in a senior position, there are plenty of CEOs who would suspend themselves from their jobs in a case like Netanyahu’s, because a lot of time is needed to conduct a legal proceeding. If there’s an indictment, the prime minister would not be able to function as prime minister.
Polls indicate that Perlmutter may have bet on the wrong horse with Gesher. Most show that the party, which had a lot of momentum at the start of the campaign, is now scraping the electoral threshold from below. Levi-Abekasis, who conducted abortive negotiations with Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael to run together, is now left with the personal loyalists, but is having difficulty attracting new voters.
Do you think you’ll get elected to the Knesset?
“If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be here.”
Still, it seems it will be difficult for you to cross the electoral threshold.
“You can always explain why a startup won’t succeed against the big companies. But if it’s a unique startup, it happens.”
For social issues, there’s already Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.
“There are significant differences between the slates. Kahlon is focused on housing, and you will judge him on his success in that area. He doesn’t talk about the other issues that Orli talks about.”
The party chairwoman’s father, David Levy, is identified with ethnic politics in Israel. Is that discussion still relevant today?
“Unfortunately, it’s very relevant. David Levy was the exception that proved the rule. The ethnic discourse has intensified in recent years. It’s important in the element of integration, when you want to give an opportunity and take corrective action. But the action doesn’t have to be based on ethnic criteria like origin or skin color. I want Arabs to be integrated into society and development towns have to get the same opportunity as the center.
“Life expectancy in the periphery is a few years shorter than in the center; this must be corrected, and there must be the same focus on education, health and jobs in the periphery. I have a whole plan for building high-tech in the periphery so that we don’t just bring workers to the industry, but the industry to the workers. Otherwise, nothing will change.”
Do you see yourself yelling in Knesset committees?
“I don’t yell. At Intel there were people who yelled, and I still didn’t yell.”
How will you manage the political wheeling and dealing?
“There’s no one who doesn’t make deals. What, when I was at Intel I didn’t make deals with clients? You get to this in any human institution. It’s all a matter of how much, and whether it’s for the good, or whether you’re pulling all kinds of tricks. Even in the relationship between a couple or with children there’s negotiating. You have to try not to compromise on issues of principle. That’s how a human system works, and it’s sometimes even beneficial.
“Politics is the art of the possible. A business or political leader has to bring about a result. To get everything perfect would be great, but you can’t move things along that way. That’s the essence of doing business.”
What’s the first thing you’ll do if you get into the Knesset?
“There’s a lot of work to be done with groups who are not partners today in high-tech. We’ve got to get more women, more people from the periphery and more of the Arab population. These are populations that the minute you integrate them into high-tech, their feeling of belonging increases. They feel part of the political and economic game, and as a result there’s an improvement in our gross national product. [The Israeli economy’s] per capita growth is not large, productivity isn’t growing. This means that what we’ve been doing until now isn’t correct. And if what you’ve been doing isn’t working, doing the same thing won’t work again.”
Is that what you hear from the field?
“In recent months I’ve done a lot to learn about our needs. I’ve spoken to a lot of people to understand the fire in their belly – whether they were leaders in security, the economy, education or health. People from different communities. This was all to understand what out-of-the-box solutions I could offer.”
So what solutions have you arrived at?
“The issue of funding, for example. Everyone is looking nowadays for the state budget to fund more hospital beds. But there are other ways to enlarge the budget. Commercializing knowledge, for example. There are large quantities of knowledge in the hospitals that can be commercialized.
“I compare this to the story of Rafael, which in the past was a Defense Ministry division that developed weapons, and became a business unit that finances part of the state budget. There are models like this that can be applied to the health system. If medical tourism today is perceived as something that comes at Israeli citizens’ expense, we have to develop a medical tourism model that will put money into the hospitals. Today there are private hospitals actually making a lot of money through the public medicine model. In education, we can issue social bonds that can be used to finance all sorts of projects”
How would a social bonds model work in these areas?
“If we could issue bonds to invest in Bedouin education, for example. The assumption is that this will reduce the costs of dealing with crime. Everyone understands that children who finish school and get a higher education will give back to society financially.
“Let’s take a public agency like that National Insurance Institute, and issue bonds for a national program to treat diabetes. The moment we’d see the results of the program in the form of a reduction in the number of diabetes patients, the NII will pay money for the bonds under a complex formula defined in advance.”
Such a thing could work?
“Without programs like this we’ll be constantly busy adjusting ourselves to the budget. In business parlance we have to work on increasing our output, which in Israel isn’t large enough. We have to start thinking about funding sources that aren’t focused solely on how much taxes I’ve collected.
“For public transportation we have to increase the use of advanced technology. Israel could be a testing site to which we’d bring all the world’s major players who will start suggesting technological solutions and will also contribute to local industry. Google is now building a whole innovation in education project. Why shouldn’t we bring them here?”
Most of the world’s capital is concentrated in the hands of a few. What should Israel’s policy?
“I’m not a communist. There are lots of advantages in a situation in which people think the sky’s the limit in terms of personal initiative and what it can yield them. In high-tech every worker gets options. In start-ups even the secretaries have options. Part of the thinking is that there is congruence between the interests of the investors, the management and the employees, and all are rewarded according to these criteria.”
Do you support a rise in corporate taxes?
“In countries where corporate taxes are high, businesses left the country. That’s why U.S. President Donald Trump lowered the corporate tax rate.”
What about raising the capital gains tax? Taxing options?
“It doesn’t need to be raised – not all the income has to be taxed.”
So how can we distribute the world’s capital better?
“Distribution is in the end through education. There is great correlation between the level of education and earning ability. That’s why my wife and I wanted to get involved in education specifically in schools in the geographic and social periphery. You have to give every child a chance. This way you kill two birds with one stone. Kids in the periphery don’t get what a child gets in Ramat Hasharon. You have to provide more entrepreneurial education so that these same children can build themselves up.”