Exclusive to The Media Line: Israel Could Be a ‘Superpower of Goodness,’ Says Presidential Hopeful Yosef Abramowitz
“I have but one ideological ax to grind, which is the climate,” Abramowitz says
Yosef Israel Abramowitz, 56, an American immigrant to Israel and well-known environmentalist, announced last week that he will run for the position of president of Israel.
A graduate of Boston University in Jewish public policy and a Wexner graduate fellow at the Columbia Journalism School, Abramowitz has been a pivotal player in putting the solar energy industry on the map in Israel and Africa. He is is president and CEO of investment platform Energiya Global Capital, which finances the development of green energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa, and co-founder of the Arava Power Company at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Arava Desert. He has been named by CNN as one of the planet’s top green pioneers and was nominated by 12 African countries and Belize for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Abramowitz immigrated to Ketura with his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and five children, in 2006. They now live in Jerusalem.
He spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson about the environmental agenda he hopes to promote as president of the Jewish state.
The Media Line: The role of Israeli president is chiefly but not only ceremonial. What can you bring to the position beyond ribbon cutting?
Yosef Abramowitz: The Israeli presidency is the only stable position – seven years – in a country that seems to always be in an election cycle, and it is usually awarded in backroom deals among coalition members to honor the past accomplishments of an individual. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, wanted the presidency to represent the future by someone relatively young who had a track record of service to the people. These next seven years are going to be critical on many issues – from climate to relations with the world Jewish community to the widening gap between rich and poor in Israel – and I would focus on strengthening the weakest elements of our society while advancing a strong climate and environmental agenda.
TML: Is the fact that you are an American incidental to your candidacy or is there a statement there?
Yosef Abramowitz: The legitimacy of many of the foundational institutions in Israel has been attacked through each election cycle, undermining the democratic culture. Growing up in the United States implanted in me a deep appreciation of the need for balance and separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; freedom of the press, and civil discourse; rule of law and the importance of civic engagement. I also believe that if I am given the privilege of serving as president, it will electrify relations with Jews around the world, rebuilding relations that have been strained and will engage the next generation. Let’s call it the Golda Meir effect in an era of TikTok. Immigrants make up about a third of Israel’s citizens and having a president who understands their challenges would be a nonpartisan and Zionist win. I also have excellent relations with Democrats and progressives in the US, whose support for Israel needs to be strengthened and, in some cases, rebuilt. Having common cause with US progressives on climate would be a good start, but unfortunately, our prime minister just squandered that opportunity at the White House Climate Leaders Conference last week and stuck to green-washing our expensive and polluting gas monopoly-fueled policies that make Israel one of the worst climate actors in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development].
TML: By the time you are elected, Israel should be voting for, what will it be … the 15th time in two years? How would President Abramowitz use his office to break free of the political deadlock?
Yosef Abramowitz: In our politicized environment, it would be helpful to have a president who is not identified with any political party in order to be an honest broker during the process of forming new government coalitions. I have joined the prime minister on several trips to Africa, worked with energy and environmental protection ministers from across the political spectrum, cooperated in the Knesset with members from nearly all parties, and am not a member of any political party. I have but one ideological ax to grind, which is the climate, and which nearly all of Israel’s political parties have recently stepped forward to also advance.
TML: You come from the entrepreneurial sector; you are not a career politician. Is that good or bad in regard to your bully pulpit?
Yosef Abramowitz: A good entrepreneur sees opportunities ahead of others to create value, like I have done in spearheading the solar industries in Israel and Africa. My background is from the world of impact investments through the Toniic group, and my vision is through attracting hundreds of billions of dollars in financing for Israeli companies that seek to solve global issues. Israel on my watch could become a superpower of goodness through our industries of goodness.
TML: You are a globally recognized environmentalist, a leading expert in solar energy. How can you make this a plus for Israel?
Yosef Abramowitz: Few other countries can credibly have their head of state lead their delegation to the United Nations Climate Conference in November. I already undertake a certain amount of green diplomacy on behalf of Israel when I cut ribbons on our solar fields in Africa; we expect to be doing so shortly in Burundi, providing 15% of the country’s entire generation capacity. [US] President Biden and Vice President Harris have put the climate crisis at the top of their global agenda; we should, as well. And as Ronald Reagan used to say, personnel is policy – meaning putting the right people in leadership is the key to advancing agendas. What we accomplished with our partners in Eilat and the Arava – the first region to reach 100% solar day goal – is already a shining example to the rest of the world that we can win the climate crisis with the right leadership.
TML: Despite Israel’s technical prowess, it has a way to go in pursuing environmental issues. How will you approach green issues? Do you plan any new governmental infrastructure?
Yosef Abramowitz: I will only cut ribbons on infrastructure projects that have passed a climate impact review process successfully and that advance the right programs to increase the use of public transportation, green building, preserves natural corridors, and more.
TML: How do you answer those who will say you are a one-issue candidate – akin to the marijuana legalization party?
Yosef Abramowitz: Climate affects all segments of our society and the climate justice movement has taught us that, like what we saw with corona affecting the weakest segments of society disproportionally, so too with the effects of climate change. Therefore, resilience is key, across all sectors, which means lifting up the weakest elements of our society educationally, socially, economically and more. The expensive and monopolistic gas deals were done in a way that undermined our democratic processes, and so strengthening our democracy and transparency is important to remove the political toxins that have taken hold of our body politic. Having an environmental lens on all the issues facing Israeli society is an added benefit at a time when Israel and the planet are more vulnerable. I will be a people’s president and also go on a listening tour in the first months.
TML: Do you have any high-profile backers onboard?
Yosef Abramowitz: On Earth Day, for the first time, 15 national green NGOs wrote to all Knesset members, united in their determination to elect only a green president. I am especially humbled and inspired by the support from the Strike for Climate youth. No presidential candidate has received yet any nomination signatures, so we are on a level playing field and our Knesset meetings have been very encouraging.
TML: Why is the time ripe for you to enter the political arena?
Yosef Abramowitz: The White House Climate Leaders Summit is the turning point globally on addressing what the Pentagon and others say is the greatest threat to our security. I don’t have any conventional ambition regarding seeking a seat in Knesset or be a minister in the government; I am simply answering the call of the youth of Israel, and the environmental movement – and even Herzl’s – for Israel to finally become a renewable light unto the nations. I am best positioned to answer this call, especially after 12 African countries and Belize nominated my climate work for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.