Less than eight months ago, Adi Koll, a 37-year-old Tel Aviv social justice and education advocate with a background in law, found a note on her office door: Yair Lapid, the famous Israeli television journalist, wanted to talk to her.
Koll dismissed it as a joke. After getting five subsequent messages, she decided it was for real and agreed to meet Lapid. The son of a noted politician and author told her that he was starting a new political party, called Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future, that would be the voice for the disenchanted Israeli middle class. Lapid wanted Koll to run for parliament on his slate.
In her first speech in the United States, at a program sponsored by J Street and held at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City, Koll told the roughly 75 people in attendance that entering politics was the farthest thing from her mind, and she initially turned him down, in part because she thought there was virtually no chance of winning.
But she was struck by the others that Lapid had recruited: Idealists, she said, who were committed to tackling the high cost of living in Israel, improving the education system and pushing for the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society, including the army.
To nearly everyone’s surprise, the centrist party won big in the Jan. 22 elections, garnering 19 seats and ultimately becoming a key partner in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
Lapid, who was named Israel’s finance minister, is seen both as a potential prime minister and as one whose time in politics could be brief.
Koll, who was ninth on the party’s slate of candidates, found herself with a seat in the Israeli Knesset — and Israelis (and Americans) eager to learn more about her and her party. Even Elad Strohmayer, Israel’s deputy consul general in Philadelphia and one who is generally up to speed on developments in the Jewish state, said before the talk that he was there to learn more about the party that “came from nowhere” while he’s been abroad.
“We all come from really different backgrounds. We all had a better job before,” said Koll, who is one of 47 new members in the 120-member Knesset. “We decided to go into this government with one motivation — that this is the only way to make a difference. We knew we were going to have to make a lot of sacrifices and vote for things we don’t agree with in order to reach our goals.”
She specifically cited her vote in support of the recently passed “anti-terror bill,” which authorizes administrative detentions for extended periods without trial. She said she thought the measure was plainly “illegal” but as a member of the governing coalition, she had agreed to support the government’s position.
In her speech, Koll presented herself as the opposite of a calculating politician — an outside agitator who is adjusting to her role inside the corridors of power. She spoke candidly about a range of topics including her and her husband’s troubles conceiving a child and the time she asked her party chair point blank whether or not he dyes his hair. (He doesn’t, he swore to her.)
Yesh Atid has so far stuck mostly to domestic issues. It’s not known for its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but supports a two-state solution.
For her part, Koll is eager to speak about the need for a two-state solution, which explains why J Street — which has lobbied for the United States to take an active and leading role in pushing Israeli-Palestinian talks — brought Koll to the United States for a five-city tour.
Koll caused a minor stir in Israel back in April when she took an official trip to Ramallah and posted a blog about visiting a friend there who has undergone fertility treatment and struggled with having children. “There is nothing normal about life in Ramallah, and there is nothing normal about us letting this happen,” she wrote.
She told the audience that she and her friend “live 25 minutes apart and we cannot meet. I don’t want to live like that. I want to do everything I can to try and change that.”
She said that her party — and Lapid — has been preoccupied with negotiations over Israel’s national budget. But when that’s over later this summer, she said, her party is going to start talking a lot more about the need for a political solution.
“What we need to have as fast as possible is a border. I think that needs to happen now,” she told the audience, adding that she wants Israelis and Americans to press their respective governments on the need for peace.
She said there was a certain amount of absurdity in a representative of the Israeli government telling an American audience to urge their government to put pressure on her government. But the world and the times, she asserted, are equally absurd.