It’s hard to imagine how Miri Regev, Israel’s culture and sport minister, was once upon a time the person in charge of Israel’s secrets. But she was.
Between 2004 and 2005, Regev was the IDF’s chief censor, a job in which silence is golden. She then served as the IDF spokesperson during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah.
So how did someone who once worked in two of the military’s most sensitive positions morph into a politician known for little else but grandstanding and some of the most inappropriate political public comments in recent history? That’s politics, I guess.
What is interesting in Regev’s case is that she went from being the person who sold the IDF’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to the world, to one of the most right-wing members of the Likud today. After she left the IDF, she reportedly tried joining the Labor Party but was snubbed, and as a result ran with the Likud. It wasn’t ideology but convenience.
I mention all of this because we again witnessed Regev and her politics at play this week, with the cancellation
of the Israel-Argentina soccer match that was supposed to bring superstar Lionel Messi to the Jewish state.
Regev tried hijacking what was supposed to be a friendly game between Israel and Argentina and a simple repeat of the match the two countries played in 1986, also on the eve of the World Cup.
Earlier this week, for example, Regev said in a radio interview that Messi was going to shake hands with her and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite reports that he did not plan on meeting them. “Let’s see who’s not going to shake my hand,” she said provocatively.
A few weeks earlier she demanded that the game be moved to Jerusalem – even though the organizers had originally booked it in Haifa – and she allocated NIS 3 million from the government to facilitate the change, announcing that the game would now become part of Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
“At a time that we are fighting to move embassies to Jerusalem, there is no question that when one of the most popular players in the world with a billion fans arrives, he should play in Jerusalem,” she said. “Jerusalem is on the map, and at a time when there is BDS, there is nothing more important.”
In other words, an apolitical game that was supposed to be a friendly match between two countries was turning into a government and political celebration.
The only thing missing was asking Messi to become a card-carrying member of the Likud Party.
It was almost a replay of Regev’s fight with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein earlier this year over her attempt to politicize the annual Independence Day ceremony.
The difference is, in the case of Argentina and Messi, Regev single-handedly scored Israel its own goal and handed the Palestinians and the BDS movement a victory on a silver platter. Makes one wonder why we even need BDS when we have someone like Miri Regev.
What is ironic about Regev’s use of BDS when explaining the importance of Messi’s visit is that on Wednesday, after the game was canceled, she claimed it wasn’t a result of BDS but, rather, the product of a new type of terrorism that included threats against the lives of Messi and his family.
She showed pictures of pro-Palestinian protesters holding Messi jerseys soaked in blood, and said that “this old/new terrorism scares and deters athletes.” She then went a step further and claimed that this was the same terrorism that killed 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team in Munich in 1972.
For Regev, apparently, a protest against Argentina’s national team coming to Israel is like the Munich massacre by Black September.
With all due respect to Messi, that is not the case. He might be a soccer superstar, but his decision not to come to Israel is not like the murder of 11 Israelis. This is an offensive exaggeration meant to once again politicize something that didn’t have to be politicized in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong. What Messi did won’t be easy to forgive. He caved to pressure and to a few threats by pro-Palestinian activists.
He might not have meant to help the BDS movement, but he gave it a boost and a very public one. Israel is already concerned over the ripple effect this will have on future international events planned for Jerusalem, such as the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest.
Regev didn’t help. She should have kept out of the Messi-Argentina visit to begin with. She could have let them come play in Haifa and just let sports be sports.
The irony is, had that happened, she would have hailed the visit as a blow to BDS. Instead, she had to try to turn the game into a political victory for herself, and as a result, handed the BDS campaign a victory and dealt Israel a major diplomatic blow.
Last March, Regev gave a speech against some of her liberal critics.
“I was always told to start a speech with a quote. It makes for a cultured impression,” she said at the time. “As the famed Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once put it,” she continued, switching to broken English: “Cut the bullshit! Cut the bullshit!” Well, Minister Regev, I couldn’t have said it any better.***
It’s difficult to imagine what has been happening in recent weeks in the lives of Israelis who live along the border with the Gaza Strip. Every day, dozens of kites and balloons, carrying incendiary devices aimed at starting fires in nearby fields, are flown across the border. Hundreds of hectares have been burned and millions of shekels in agriculture have been lost. Residents can’t open their windows. This is terrorism.
But there is also something uncomfortable in the way Israeli politicians have been talking about what is happening down south. Some ministers are calling for targeted killings of the kite flyers, others are talking about the importance of developing new technology to intercept the kites and balloons.
Israel is not a helpless country.
It is a state with an annual defense budget amounting to NIS 75 billion. Burned fields and millions of shekels in damages is not just unpleasant, it is terrible. But it is not something that should lead Israel into a state of hysteria.
There is no question that in the war between Israel and Hamas, Israel is the more powerful side.
Hamas’s capabilities are incomparable to what the powerful IDF has and can do.
But this war is not about military capabilities. It is about public perception and narratives. It is about who looks good in the world and who doesn’t. Israel shouldn’t let kites fly across the border and burn its fields, but it also shouldn’t respond to them without first calculating what it is going to do.
The problem is that no one seems to be doing that. Netanyahu, for example, announced Sunday night that Israel will deduct the cost of the agricultural damage from “kite terror” from the funds Israel regularly transfers to the Palestinian Authority.
This is pure populism. Punishing the PA in the West Bank will have no effect on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But this is not meant to be a solution. This is meant to create a facade for the public that something is being done. This is politics.
The real problem with the Gaza Strip is that no Israeli politician is willing to publicly say what, in his or her opinion, really needs to happen. Due to the political price one might end up paying, no one is willing to put a sincere and viable plan on the table that could work.
To call for conquering Gaza is much more lucrative politically than to call for an increase in humanitarian aid. If a politician calls to topple Hamas, he or she will receive more votes than if they recommend allowing 30,000 Gazans into Israel for work.
Gaza is a problem that is not going to simply go away by itself, and thinking about it in tactical terms – how to stop kites, how to stop border riots, how to stop tunnels – will work for only so long. A grander strategy is needed.