Analyze This: Comparing the Olmerts & Palins

How 'family values' play out differently in the US and Israel.

September 3, 2008 02:32
Analyze This: Comparing the Olmerts & Palins

the palins 224.88 ap. (photo credit: AP)


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When Ehud Olmert ran for prime minister two years ago, the National Religious Party distributed a pamphlet illustrated with a photo of him together with his wife and grown children and titled: "Fighting family?" The right-wing Revisionist movement was long known by that nickname. The pamphlet was a shot at the left-wing politics of his wife, Aliza, and even more so at some of his children, who have been associated with such groups as Yesh Gvul and Machsom Watch. A Likud campaign commercial took a similar approach, pointing out that one of his sons had failed to serve in the army and another had been living abroad for years. Olmert, when asked, has always distanced himself from the views of his offspring, which go well beyond his own shift leftward in recent years. What then, if anything, did their outlooks and activities have to do with his suitability for office? Is the behavior of a politician's children ever relevant to voters in assessing the character of a candidate, provided the parent is not directly involved in aiding or covering-up any illegal or immoral acts? This issue has now cropped up in the US presidential campaign with the revelation that the Republican vice presidential contender, Sarah Palin, has a 17-year-old daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock. Palin's GOP supporters, and many Democrats as well, argue that this is an entirely private matter, unrelated to her bid to join John McCain in the White House come January. That view is complicated, though, by the fact that Palin's selection by McCain as his running mate was clearly based in part on her potential appeal as a "family values" candidate who would be viewed favorably by the Republican social-conservative base. Much has already been made by that segment of the American electorate over another of Palin's children - her infant son Trig, who was brought to term earlier this year despite a prenatal diagnosis of Down's syndrome, seen by her supporters as a testament to her opposition to abortion under any circumstances short of a threat to the mother's life. The decision of her daughter Bristol to carry on with her own pregnancy is likewise being hailed by the anti-abortion advocates supporting Palin. But beyond that is the fact that as governor of Alaska, Palin has also been a strong backer of "abstinence-only" sex education for minors - an approach that holds that the best way to avoid teenage sexual activity and possible pregnancy is promoting total abstinence, minus any instruction on contraceptive methods that could be interpreted as giving license to fornication. Clearly "abstinence only" was not a success in the Palin household. Does one such isolated example, even as high-profile as this, have any bearing on its validity as a general approach? And if not, why pay Bristol Palin's pregnancy any mind, even if her actions contradict the policies of her mother? Yet no one should doubt, even if it has no real bearing on the outcome of this presidential race, that this affair will continue to generate tremendous interest from the media and public - in a way that would not be the case here in Israel, were such a story to involve the family member of a comparable political figure. That's because despite the fact that local pundits often bemoan the rise of American-style "personality politics" here in recent years, there is still a big difference in the degree to which this approach is applied in Israeli and the US. This is especially so when it comes to the relevance of family matters in assessing a candidate's character at election time. The families of Israeli politicians are generally viewed as relevant by the mainstream press and public only when they are perceived as having an influence on their relative's politics - as is the case with Judy Nir-Moses Shalom, Sarah Netanyahu or Omri Sharon. While a supportive family can certainly be an asset for a public figure here - and a family member deemed problematic a drawback - in Israel there is nowhere near the emphasis given this aspect of a politician's background as one finds in the US. Indeed, scenes that we have seen on the American campaign trail in recent days - with the nominees of both parties bringing their families on stage with them at conventions and other events, and having them interact with them live on-camera in front of crowds of supporters - is still almost never seen in Israeli politics. If Americans are more likely to make character judgments on candidates based on how their children turned out, that's surely in part because they often talk incessantly about how they themselves were shaped by the influence of their own parents. The reality is no certainly no less true here - but when did Yitzhak Rabin ever speak to audiences about the huge impact his Labor Zionist-activist mother had on his life, or Netanyahu about the ideological influence of his renowned academic father, unless directly asked about it? While it's a natural human tendency to draw conclusions about a person by seeing how their children turned out, the world is a complicated place, and parental influence is just one factor in it. Olmert's ideological opponents might try to argue that the politics of his children are in some way a reflection of the father; yet what does it say about his old Likud comrade Moshe Arens, still a fervent believer in retaining Judea and Samaria, that his American academic son Yigal turned out to be an even more (in his own words) "outspoken critic of Zionism in general and Israeli policies in particular, including the occupation of Palestinian territories?" Bristol Palin's pregnancy should be a private matter - but it certainly becomes harder to keep it so when her mother brings her up on stage while being introduced as the new Republican vice presidential candidate and then talks to the entire US about the importance of family in her life. It is inconceivable, in contrast, to imagine Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni doing anything remotely similar in own her campaign to attain the Kadima leadership. In fact, most Israelis would be hard pressed to even be able to identify Livni's children. As for Sarah Palin, she may come to regret - if she doesn't already - that her fellow Americans (and many others elsewhere in the world as well) will have no such trouble with her daughter Bristol, as the story of her pregnancy develops throughout this election autumn.

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