Penina Tamanu-Shata
Penina Tamanu-ShataNoam Revkin Fenton/Flash90

On Thursday, the Blue & White party split and its various factions – Telem, Israel Resilience, and Yesh Atid – went their separate ways, after Blue & White’s leader MK Benny Gantz decided to take his faction, Israel Resilience, into negotiations with the Likud for a unity government, and one of Yesh Atid’s MKs, Penina Tamanu-Shata, jumped ship and joined him.

On Monday, Tamanu-Shata gave her first interview since announcing her decision, speaking to Yinon Magal on 103FM Radio, defending her decision and that of Gantz, and saying of her former party comrades, “I don’t think they’re reading the political map correctly.”

Tamanu-Shata began her political career in 2013 as a member of the Yesh Atid party. “Yesh Atid was a comfortable political home for me, and also a very serious place to be. But sometimes in politics you need to make difficult decisions. When I saw that a unity government was being formed, I realized that this was something that we really needed right now. I couldn’t see myself ever voting against a government like that, so it was clear to me from the outset that I wasn’t going to sit in the opposition.”

According to her, MK Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid’s leader, wasn’t surprised at her decision. “It was a process – it wasn’t something that happened overnight. I had been talking about my ideas within the party for some time already, and it was becoming more and more clear that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with Lapid. I have a lot of respect for him, and for MK Moshe Ya’alon (Telem), but I don’t think they’re reading the map correctly. However, at the end of the day, people have to act according to their beliefs, according to the way in which they see things.”

“The truth is that this wasn’t the first time that I saw things differently from Lapid, but this time it was clear that we’re at a real crossroads. I knew that if I stayed in Yesh Atid, I wouldn’t be true to myself. There was no way I could vote against a government I believed in. As members of the Knesset, we have the duty to be truthful with the public, and we have to act according to our beliefs. Maybe it would have been more comfortable for me to stay in Yesh Atid with my good friends, rather than setting out on a new path, one which no one knows where it will end. But this is the responsibility of a Knesset member – to realize that the situation has changed, and to act accordingly.”

She credits Gantz as being the first person to understand this. “He was the one who decided that we weren’t going to push the country into another round of elections. After the second round of elections, there was a lot of discussion in the party surrounding the proposal put forward by the President, to form a unity government. Gantz decided then that he wouldn’t break up the Blue & White party, but after a third round of elections produced the same result, he changed his mind. After all, what does Einstein say? To do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome is insanity. It really was crazy, and anyone who tried to tell you otherwise was just lying. It was clear by that point that refusing to accept reality wasn’t doing the public a service.”

How does she view Benny Gantz, given her stated opinion on his change of course? “He made a very tough decision – after all, he was the one who established Blue & White, together with Lapid. I believe he made the right decision, a decision that shows responsibility, but I expect that he will pay the price for it, nonetheless. There are politicians who truly believe that they are serving the State in the Knesset, and they act according to their consciences – but sometimes, you have to know when ideology becomes self-serving and stop being a hypocrite. And that takes courage.”

Yinon Magal asked her what she thinks of the failed bid by Blue & White to establish a minority government with the support of the predominantly Arab Joint List, and if she blames Telem MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser for scuppering its chances when they refused to support such a government, against the position of their party leader.

“I don’t understand why people are blaming them,” she said. “I’ll tell you the truth, unlike other people. Tzvika and Yoaz (Hauser and Hendel, respectively - ed.) didn’t trust anyone after the second round of elections, and they already said back then that they wouldn’t support such a minority government. I also didn’t like the idea of such a government – it’s so susceptible to blackmail by its members. And for me especially, with my center-right leanings, it wasn’t an inviting prospect. All the same, if Gantz had decided to go for it, then I would have gone along with it. But I didn’t see that happening.”

What if Gantz had decided, instead of joining a unity government, to join a temporary emergency government for a limited period of time? Would she have supported that and left Yesh Atid to join?

“And what would happen at the end of such a government’s term?” she asked. “Elections, of course. I don’t think the Israeli public should be asked to pay the price for such stubbornness,” she said bluntly. “Politicians have to know when to get out of the way, to stop obstructing things. We have to know how to compromise.”

She added that, “Israeli society is so fractured, so divided. We have to join together – we have to find a way to do so. After two thousand years of exile, we can’t destroy our home from within. This was one of my key motivations,” she revealed. “I want to believe that things can be different. I want to believe that we can rise above our differences. For instance, I was one of those against the proposed legislation to prevent [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu from forming a government ‘because he’s under indictment.’ It was clear that it was a law directed against him personally.”

Magal then told her what Yesh Atid and Telem said of her decision to leave Yesh Atid: “During a national crisis, Tamanu-Shata and the members of Gantz’s party are agreeing to an enlarged government of more than 30 ministers, hundreds of millions [of shekels] for politics that could have gone to hospitals, small businesses, and citizens. It’s a slap in the face to the voters. This isn’t an emergency government – it’s a free-for-all.”

Tamanu-Shata responded: “I also don’t like the idea of such a huge government, but bear in mind that negotiations are still underway. We’ll do whatever we can to limit the number of ministers.”

On the other hand, she emphasized that, “We have made unprecedented achievements. We are going to have a balanced government, one in which we will have a veto on all the laws voted on, as well as a veto on appointments to sensitive positions such as that of police commissioner and attorney general. At the end of the day, we had to make a choice between making an impact and not making an impact, and we chose to make an impact.”

Was she promised anything in return for leaving Yesh Atid? “No one has made any agreement with me that I’ll be a minister. But I admit that I – like virtually every other politician – have political aspirations as well as the desire to play a significant role. And it would be a great privilege for me to serve as the first-ever Ethiopian minister. As someone who made aliyah (immigrated to Israel - ed.) at age three and had to deal with all the challenges of parents who didn’t speak the language and other difficulties, I would welcome the opportunity to help other immigrants, and to support the immigration of those who have been waiting for the chance to come here for so long.”

In conclusion, she stated, “Gantz is going to be prime minister. There is a promise on the table that in a year-and-a-half [Netanyahu] is leaving. And now, in the midst of a global epidemic that has reached Israel too, it’s unthinkable that we would sit in the opposition and pretend to be achieving something. So that’s why I joined this unity government – to help, to influence, to lead. To ensure that protecting our health doesn’t mean losing our democracy. If we hadn’t made this decision, things would have become much worse. So we did the responsible thing, and joined the government.”