Published May 27, 2013
JERUSALEM – Zeev Elkin has faced a wave of criticism since he was made the de facto chief of Israel's Foreign Ministry two months ago: He isn't prepared for compromise with the Palestinians. He doesn't speak English well enough. He is a West Bank settler.
But Israel's deputy foreign minister, who is the top official until a new foreign minister is named, makes no apologies for his ideology or background, and in fact thinks they are an advantage. Claiming to reflect the "real positions" of most Israelis, Elkin says the world should get used to dealing with Jewish settlers and right-wing Israeli politicians.
"It is a mistake to think the Foreign Ministry needs a person whose views the world would rather hear but do not reflect the government or the majority in Israel," Elkin said in an interview. "You cannot fool the world."
Elkin, a rising star in Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, was handed the No. 2 spot at the Foreign Ministry following parliamentary elections early this year.
Netanyahu has promised the foreign minister's job to his political partner, Avigdor Lieberman. With Lieberman on trial on fraud and breach of trust charges, he is unable to assume the post.
For now, Netanyahu has taken on the foreign minister's job until Lieberman's trial ends, handling many key diplomatic functions while Elkins oversees the ministry's day to day affairs.
The job is the latest stop for the fast-rising Elkin, a 42-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union who holds degrees in mathematics and history. In the previous government, he was the chairman of Netanyahu's governing coalition, one of the most important and influential positions in parliament.
Elkin is among a group of young, hard-liners who rose to prominence in Netanyahu's Likud Party during a primary vote last year. These officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon and the Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, are skeptical of reaching peace with the Palestinians and strong proponents of building settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Edelstein also lives in the West Bank. Lieberman, the would-be foreign minister, is also a settler, and Netanyahu's trade minister, Naftali Bennett, leads a pro-settler religious party and himself is a former head of the settlers' council.
The presence of so many Jewish settlers in key positions has drawn accusations that the new Israeli government is the most pro-settler in history, and raised deep Palestinian suspicions about Israel's willingness to make concessions for peace.
The Palestinians and the international community reject Jewish settlements as illegal or illegitimate, and continued Israeli construction is at the heart of a nearly 5-year-old deadlock in peace efforts.
Speaking slightly accented Hebrew in a soft monotone voice, Elkin said the settlements, home to more than 500,000 Israelis, have become a fact of life that must be recognized.
With so many settlers, "naturally they are represented in the hallways of government," he said. "I am not embarrassed of being a settler. I don't think I need to apologize to anyone about it."
Danon, the deputy defense minister, said he couldn't agree more, saying that Israel is "proud" of its settlers, and that giving them important jobs would help negative perceptions of them worldwide.
"I do not see any difference between a Jew who lives in a Jewish community in Judea and Samaria or elsewhere," he said. "When you meet those people, maybe the image that you have is a different one than the reality."
But Zehava Galon, leader of the opposition Meretz Party, said Elkin's appointment sent a bad message to the world.
"When our foreign relations are based on a settler agenda it is problematic," she said. "These are people with an agenda to keep settlements and not reach a compromise. I don't understand how they can manage Israel's foreign relations."
For now, Elkin's ideological leanings have not been much of a problem. He said meetings with foreign diplomats have been pleasant and professional, and in many cases, he knows them personally from his past work in parliament.
In addition, Netanyahu has distanced Elkin from key issues, particularly in dealing with U.S. efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu handles the contacts with the Americans himself and has delegated Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to serve as his chief negotiator if peace talks resume.
Elkin said he has no problem with this arrangement, noting that in Israel's fragmented political system, prime ministers have historically reserved key diplomatic functions for themselves.
Elkin said he still deals with "98 percent" of Israel's diplomatic issues, which is more than enough. He recently joined Netanyahu at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Israel pressed the Russian leader not to ship advanced weapons to Syria. Elkin refused to divulge details of the talks, saying only that they were "constructive."
Elkin said that he has not allowed his personal views on the Palestinian issue to affect his professional work. He has already assigned a small team of Foreign Ministry workers to assist Livni in her attempts to restart talks with the Palestinians, and said he would expand the team if negotiations resume.
And while Elkin opposes the Palestinian demand to freeze settlement construction, he said it is "no secret" that the government has greatly limited settlement projects in recent weeks at U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's urging.
Elkin heaped the blame for the current impasse in peace efforts on the Palestinians, accusing them of setting unrealistic conditions at the outset of talks, promoting hatred and glorifying violence. Such accusations, denied by the Palestinians, are common among Israel's right wing.
If Israel and the Palestinians somehow defy the odds and reach a deal, Elkin signaled he would not stand in the way.
"I am a democrat and therefore willing to accept any decision made by a democratic majority," he said.
He just might not be part of the government if it reaches that point. "If I feel I can't represent the government, I will not stick to my chair," he said.