Rafi Peretz's diplomatic incident and the question of leading questions

My Word: “If you have nothing to say, say nothing."

By
July 19, 2019 04:59
Newly appointed Education Minister Rafi Peretz speaks during the handover ceremony at the ministry i

Newly appointed Education Minister Rafi Peretz speaks during the handover ceremony at the ministry in Jerusalem last month. . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

A lecturer in journalism once demonstrated a fail-proof way to get a story when interviewing a prominent politician. “You ask, ‘Mr. President, are you a homosexual?’ and whatever the answer you’ll have a headline – either ‘President denies he is homosexual’ or ‘President is gay.’”

The example came to mind after Channel 12 News on Saturday night aired an interview by veteran journalist Dana Weiss with newly appointed Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Rafi Peretz. Peretz proved first and foremost that he is a political novice. Weiss set an ambush on prime-time TV and he foolishly rushed in.

“By the way, are you in favor of conversion therapy [for homosexuals]? Do you believe you can change people with these tendencies?” Weiss asked. And, instead of sidestepping the question as a more polished politician might, Peretz answered, “Yes, I think it’s possible” and added that as an educator he had treated homosexual youths. Well, at least he gave an honest answer.

The inevitable followed. “Israeli Education Minister Advocates Debunked Gay Conversion Therapy,” screamed The New York Times and similar headlines around the world. What had been the answer to a question became a statement.

Peretz’s reply to Weiss even created a diplomatic incident. Luxembourg’s openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Bettel declined to attend a farewell dinner for Israel’s departing ambassador on the grounds that he couldn’t take part in the event honoring a representative of Israel when a senior minister made such comments about the LGBT community.

In response, newly appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a proud homosexual, tweeted a question to Luxembourg’s premier: “When you shook hands with [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad] Zarif – were you aware of how conversion therapy looks like in the Islamic Republic of Iran?” The accompanying photo showed homosexuals being hanged.

That Israel has turned Tel Aviv into a tourism mecca for gays, be damned. All that matters is what the right-wing education minister said in answer to a question in a debut interview. Incidentally, Peretz told Weiss that he would continue the funding for an organization helping LGBT youth. But his later attempts at damage control sounded less sincere than his original response. In a letter to school principals written on Tuesday, Peretz backtracked completely from the concept of conversion therapy, writing: “I know that conversion therapy is illegitimate and severe... [and] creates more suffering than help and can even endanger a person’s life through [potential] suicide that can be prevented.”

It turns out that Peretz – a former pilot, ex-IDF chief rabbi and veteran educator – was guilty of being ignorant of what the term “conversion therapy” involves the way Weiss intended.

The best advice to the rookie politician comes courtesy of the ever-relevant British comedy series Yes, Prime Minister: “If you have nothing to say, say nothing. If you have something to say, say it, no matter what they ask. Better still, pay no attention to the question, just make your own statement. Then if they ask the question again, what you say is: ‘That’s not the question,’ or ‘I think the real question is’ and then you make another statement of your own.”

I’M NOT sure what the country would have done for news without the Peretz scandal this week. The subject remained in the headlines for days. This wasn’t about burning issues; it was about an agenda, bashing the Right, the religious and someone who might help Benjamin Netanyahu remain prime minister after September’s general election.

The topic was finally ousted from the top of the news lineup by another political scandal that gathered momentum on Wednesday. Photos re-emerged of former prime minister Ehud Barak, head of the newly formed Israel Democratic Party, entering the Manhattan home of Jeffery Epstein. Epstein was convicted of soliciting a teenage girl to prostitution in 2008 and was charged last week for sex trafficking dozens of minors. The photos of Barak were taken in January 2016. (And Barak explained that his face was almost covered because of the cold, not to prevent being identified.)

The Daily Mail dished out the headline: “EXCLUSIVE: Married Israeli politician Ehud Barak is seen hiding his face entering Jeffrey Epstein’s NYC townhouse as bevy of young beauties were also spotted going into mansion – despite his claim he NEVER socialized with the pedophile and his girls.”

You have to read on to discover that it’s not clear that Barak and the women were there at the same time.

Barak, wisely, tried to distance himself from Epstein – not, I suspect on moral grounds, but because his former business investor is literally bad news for someone planning a political comeback.

Barak told the Meet the Press program that he had no idea that Epstein’s charges involved minors. This suggests that he was better prepared for the TV interview than he was in his business dealings.

The former prime minister should be grateful that the outrage at Rafi Peretz kept the heat off him for a few extra days. (Some might think it was because Barak is seen as someone who, unlike Peretz, could help unseat Netanyahu.)

WEISS WROTE an opinion piece that was published in The Jerusalem Post this week that was full of damning praise. She notes that Barak in 2011 warned that Israel faced a “diplomatic tsunami” while Netanyahu devised a strategy of using the country’s hi-tech industry to create diplomatic opportunities in a world eager to share Israel’s technological breakthroughs and anti-terrorism capabilities. “Israel’s hi-tech and security expertise gave it leverage like that yielded by the oil-rich Gulf states,” she wrote.

But, of course, she believes this is too good to be true. “It seems the Israelis responsible for its innovation are frustrated by Netanyahu’s domestic politics and policies,” Weiss opined. “Their work opened doors in Asia, Latin America and the Arab world, but now they are leaving. Hurting Israel’s democracy directly hurts Israel’s economy.

“Netanyahu’s theory of power brought Israel to new diplomatic heights. However, without a liberal democracy and strong values, good people will continue to leave. As this happens, Israel’s hi-tech will become stagnant and its military weakened.”

There are two problems with Weiss’s thinking. Firstly, it ignores the real reasons people are leaving. It’s not because of the corruption investigations into Netanyahu (just as people didn’t leave in droves when former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sent to jail) and it’s not because of attacks on the judicial system or media. People are leaving because they can’t afford to buy a home and expenses for young couples with families (and singles with one salary) are almost unbearable – especially for the vast majority of the population not employed in the well-paid hi-tech sector.

These are the real burning issues, not Rafi Peretz’s views on homosexuals.

The second fault with Weiss’s op-ed is that it doesn’t acknowledge that there are religious and right-wing hi-tech entrepreneurs (previous education minister Naftali Bennett is a good example.) And she doesn’t consider that there is a flow of immigration – especially in the summer months, when olim arrive by the planeload.

True, the push for some is rising antisemitism in the Diaspora, the cost of Jewish education and, yes, the threat of assimilation (which Peretz last week compared to “a second Holocaust.”) But most are pulled here by good old-fashioned Zionism and the relatively easy-going lifestyle in a successful country.

I made aliyah 40 years ago this week. On the office wall of the Jewish Agency emissary who was meant to help facilitate our immigration and absorption was a poster featuring a solitary flower surrounded by dried earth and the slogan “I never promised you a rose garden.” It was a sensible reminder that nowhere’s perfect.

In spite of the combined promise and threat, I have witnessed the country grow and flourish over the decades. I prefer to ignore the smell of the election politics and stop to smell the roses among the thorns.

liat@jpost.com


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