The political apprenticeship of Miri Regev

The queen of Israeli populism has derailed her impressive political journey by losing a soccer match that was never played

Culture Minister Miri Regev cabinet meeting March 11, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Culture Minister Miri Regev cabinet meeting March 11, 2018
FEARING CAPTURE by the king of Gat, where he sought refuge while fleeing his nemesis, King Saul, the future King David “let his saliva run down his beard” so he would come across as a madman.
The act worked, as the Philistine asked his staff “Do I lack madmen that you have brought this fellow to rave for me?” David survived the encounter and Gat became a milestone in his journey to power.
That was in Philistine Gat. Now, the southern town’s modern successor – Kiryat Gat – is the backdrop of a uniquely Israeli political voyage almost as colorful as David’s, except this one’s heroine, 53-yearold Culture Minister Miri Regev, has just marched into a swampland where her ambitions might drown.
The symbol and engine of a broad political assault on the cultural elite, the queen of Israeli populism may have now overplayed her hand, after having accidentally let down the soccer fans that are at the heart of the low-classes electorate she has set out to woo.
Born into the town that was built in 1954 at the Negev’s doorstep, Miriam Siboni was raised several dozen kilometers – and one mental lightyear – south of the artery that bustled with the ruling classes that traveled between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Though closer to the center than most other development towns, socially speaking Kiryat Gat was as disenfranchised as any of them.
Established by immigrants from Morocco, like Miri’s father Felix, Kiryat Gat was a working-class city of faceless housing projects, one humble movie theater, and one dominant employer – textile giant Polgat – for whom thousands cut, stitched, and packed elegant, three-piece suits that sold well in Tel Aviv, Paris, and London, but hardly in the dusty town where they were made.
It was from this marginalized locale that young Miri proceeded to Israel’s great social accelerator, the army, where she landed in the IDF Spokesman unit, the military-civilian junction where soldiers, journalists and politicians routinely interface.
An able administrator, Regev climbed over the following two decades to the rank of colonel, becoming at 37 the deputy of the first female IDF Spokesperson, Brig.- Gen. Ruth Yaron, previously a career-diplomat who served as Information Consul in Washington.
In a harbinger of things to come, the future politician quickly clashed with the former diplomat and three months later the two parted ways, as Miri became the IDF Chief Censor. Breakthrough came for Regev in 2005, when Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz replaced Moshe Ya’alon as Chief of General Staff, and appointed her as IDF Spokesperson, with the rank of Brigadier General.
The high-profile position helped Regev become a newsmaker, twice: first, during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and then during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Regev emerged from both efforts bruised, once politically and once professionally.
Politically, her daily representation of the IDF while it evacuated settlers and razed their homes portrayed Regev as part of the plan which she now says she opposed all along.
Professionally, Regev’s reputation was bruised during the following year’s war in the north, which pundits like Haifa University Communications Professor Gabi Weiman judged as a media flop for the IDF.
Seen repeatedly during the fighting alongside Lt-Gen. Halutz, a conduct practiced by none of her predecessors and successors, Regev came across as craving media attention, and neglecting her real task, which was to shape the war’s coverage.
Critics felt she acted as if she had been Halutz’s press secretary, and while at it made him appear as a commander who talked too much and accomplished too little.
Worst of all, when the war’s most testing media-relations moment arrived with breaking-news reports of dozens of fatalities, including many children, in the Kafr-Kana village – Regev vanished. It later turned out that her English wasn’t good enough to face the cameras and lead the IDF’s response to what now dominated the major networks’ coverage.
Regardless of her English proficiency, Regev also failed to gather in real time the kind of reports that her unit needed to do its job smartly, for instance by diverting media attention to the battlefield presence of Iranian officers, some of whom shot themselves in the head when IDF infantry closed in on them.
Regev’s performance was hampered not only by the narrowness of her media horizons, but also by her lack of the backgrounds of her predecessors, who were mostly intelligence officers, like Amos Gilead, or journalists, like Nachman Shai, and as such had war-situation instincts Regev glaringly lacked.
Even so, and unlike many of the war’s key military figures, Regev emerged from it unscathed, so much so that soon after retiring from the IDF after 25 years’ service she emerged in Likud’s headquarters flanked by Benjamin Netanyahu, and said she was running in Likud’s imminent primaries.
It was fall 2008, by then, and the Likud was the opposition party widely expected to win the approaching election, following Ehud Olmert’s evolving downfall.
Likud would indeed rise from 12 to 27 seats and also wrest the premiership, but Regev would only reach the Knesset’s backbenches, and that too by the skin of her teeth, having been the 27th and last on that list, and that, too, only after having appealed the primary results which landed her in the 34th slot.
There was no hint at that point that the mother of three and graduate of the IDF Staff and Command College; the MBA who had long moved from Kiryat Gat to affluent Rosh Ha’ayin with her Ashkenazi husband Dror, an engineer and also a native of Kiryat Gat, four classes above Regev – will now fashion herself as the champion of Israel’s downtrodden and disenfranchised.
Hailed by Netanyahu during her political baptizing as “a woman who grew up in Kiryat Gat” it seemed she would play the role he implicitly assigned her, as a feminine fig leaf and social ornament to a political ticket dominated by blue blooded Ashkenazi males like himself.
Regev had other plans.
A mere six months after entering the Knesset she confronted the prime minister by coming out against his finance minister’s plan to raise VAT on fruit and vegetables.
“As someone who knew hardship,” she said, thus contrasting herself with the wellborn Netanyahu and his finance minister of the day, Yuval Steinitz, “I promise to continue fighting for the weaker parts of society.”
REGEV PROVOKED the Likud’s entire Knesset faction when she threatened to ignore its order and vote in the Knesset Finance Committee against the bill, a gamble that soon paid off, as Netanyahu and Steinitz shelved the tax that indeed would have hurt the poor more than anyone else.
Yet with all due respect to such fiscal crusading, Miri Regev would seize Israeli populism’s leadership thanks to nationalistic broadsides and xenophobic yelps.
Regev’s nationalistic assault was launched in June 2010, when she shouted in the Knesset plenary at MK Hanin Zoabi “Traitor! Go to Gaza!” referring – in Arabic – to the Arab lawmaker’s presence on the Turkish flotilla that tried to reach Gaza through the IDF’s naval blockade.
Regev then proceeded to the realms that Europeans like Marine Le Pen had long inhabited, and where Americans like Donald Trump had yet to emerge.
“The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” she shouted during a delirious residents’ rally in southern Tel Aviv, referring to the illegal immigrants who had transformed an already alienated slum into a social powder keg.
Crisscrossing the country with such rhetoric Regev pandered to Likud’s undereducated layers as the flagbearer of all things populist, an effort that by the 2013 elections rewarded her with the 13th place in Likud’s list of Knesset candidates.
Even so, Netanyahu – whether out of scorn for her lowbrow manner or fear of its appeal – ignored her electoral success and gave cabinet positions to people who had actually won fewer votes than her.
Regev did not lose heart.
Assuming the chairmanship of the Knesset Interior Committee, she set out to expose the funding of organizations that defended the illegal immigrants, claiming it came from anti-Israeli foreigners.
Having thus consolidated her ultra-nationalist crusader’s image, Regev’s support soared among Likud’s rank and file who catapulted her to fourth place in the party’s next primaries, crowning her as Likud’s senior woman. Her regular caricaturing in high-rating TV satire “Wonderful Country” as a vulgar ignoramus damaged none of her publicity effort, and, if anything, helped it.
No longer able to ignore her popularity, Netanyahu gave Regev a seat in his fourth cabinet, though he remained as stingy as the situation allowed him to be, handing Regev the Culture and Sports Ministry, the most marginal and least budgeted agency up his sleeve.
Regev would make the most of an unfavorable hand.
Though her budget of 961 million shekels (265 million dollars) was less than halfa-percent of the overall budget, she used it to wage war on the cultural establishment.
Regev first blocked funding for a fringe theater in Haifa that, despite family protestations, staged a play inspired by an IDF soldier’s kidnapping and murder in 1984.
While this cause won broad public backing, other targets, like an Arab-Jewish children’s theater in Jaffa, enhanced Regev’s loose-cannon image.
The budgetary tinkering, designed to lead funds from the center to the periphery, was then wrapped in an ideological battle cry. “I am Miri Siboni from Kiryat Gat,” she told Yisrael Hayom, “I never read Chekhov, I hardly went to theater during my childhood, I listened to [religious Sephardi singer] Joe Ammar, and I am not less cultured than Western culture’s consumers.”
From there the road was short to Regev’s defense of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who had shot dead a neutralized Palestinian terrorist.
Having thus defied not only the cultural and the moneyed elites but also the military, Regev entered her fourth ministerial year as a political icon whose resentment by Likud’s discontents only bolstered her following’s adoration.
Time was thus ripe for hubris.
With Argentina’s fabled soccer team planned to train in Spain for the World Cup in Russia, a private entrepreneur contracted it to fly via Israel, for an exhibition game with the national team.
The game’s 31,000 tickets sold online instantaneously when Regev, having learned it would be held in Haifa, demanded it be relocated to Jerusalem, as part of Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
The Argentineans, it turned out, were looking for an excuse to cancel the game which was for them a distracting nuisance.
The politically draped relocation to Jerusalem gave anti-Israel activists, led by the Palestinian Football Association, pretext to pressure the team, which indeed canceled its trip.
Regev had thus let down thousands of fans who bought tickets to see maestro Lionel Messi at play. Worse, she handed the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement its most stinging victory to date. And worst of all, from her viewpoint, Regev let down Netanyahu whom she had been trying to ingratiate since he appeared with her before the cameras, the day she joined politics ten years ago.
Regev’s claim, that the Argentineans surrendered to life threats, though plausible in itself, did little to undo the impression that she had barged into a delicate matter that was beyond her administrative assignment and above her personal payload.
Israel’s image is Netanyahu’s realm. Regev’s arguably elephantine trespassing has allowed Palestinian Soccer Association Chairman Jibril Rajoub a victory lap that he did not deserve and Netanyahu could not bear. Regev then made things even worse for her, when she claimed that Netanyahu demanded the game’s relocation, only to see him deny that claim.
Regev’s flight to the top thus seems ready for the same Icarian dive that saw others before her plunge from the heat surrounding Netanyahu’s throne to the political oblivion that yawns beneath it.
Then again, besides having repeatedly overcome setbacks in the past, Regev indeed represents something Netanyahu cannot ignore, something as big as the cresting social forces that are unsettling European politics and have already taken over the White House.
Like her or not, Miri Regev is part of the Zeitgeist.