Middle Israel: Ramon and the art of political maintenance

Ramon was in it not for the public, the state or even just the party; he was there for himself.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Jaffa, now famous for its unique mixture of artsy galleries, Mediterranean eateries and unromantic criminals, was actually the Zionist enterprise's birth stool. There was a time, well before Haim Ramon's childhood there, when Jaffa was home to monumental literati like Bialik, Agnon and Brenner; a time when it was the Promised Land's bustling, if humble, commercial hub and its only international gateway; a time when boats arrived routinely at its harbor laden with young, enthusiastic and naive dreamers on the scale of modernist painter Reuven Rubin and the mystic Rabbi A.I. Kook, out to rehabilitate the Jews and reclaim their land; a time when couples with thick Russian accents strolling along its yet-to-be-polluted coastline hesitantly sought one another's hand, while a sparsely settled country yawned to their east and a pumpkin-orange sun set to their west. Jaffa's decline came in two installments: First, the rise of Tel Aviv sucked away its Jews, then the War of Independence blew away its Arabs, turning it overnight into a metropolitan wasteland that soon became Tel Aviv's ugly stepsister, absorbing impoverished immigrants and emerging as a rusting, filthy and decrepit urban backyard whose original poets and dreamers had given way to burglars, prostitutes and pushers and a general stereotype of lawlessness. This is where Haim Ramon was reared, a place that when he was 14 saw gloomily its historic seaport shut down, a place from which a 10-minute-jog led to well-to-do Tel Aviv physically, but even a light-year would not lead there socially. It was from this Jaffa that an ambitious Ramon launched his remarkable career of political maneuvering, ideological opportunism and moral self-destruction. RAMON ENTERED politics as head of the Labor Party's Young Guard, a position that demanded less approval from the public and more from the party apparatus. The whole thing was virtual leadership, of course, but it allowed the good-looking young lawyer to constantly rub shoulders with the party brass and become a Shimon Peres protege. Like the rest of his party, Ramon watched helplessly as Labor languished for seven years in opposition until Peres finally became prime minister one year after Ramon became a lawmaker and launched an eventful quarter-century in national politics. During that time, he actually shaped events, devalued norms and embodied a whole era in Israeli political history, an era of expediency, frivolity and dereliction. His first important - and disastrous - move came in 1990, when he concocted, with his buddy Aryeh Deri of Shas, the raw deal that would have wrested the premiership from Yitzhak Shamir and handed it to Shimon Peres through a parliamentary vote. The ploy failed colossally, as it turned out that Deri had sold Ramon what he did not have, a commitment that all haredi MKs and their rabbis would back the move. The morning after this fiasco, Ramon faced two types of criticism. One simply asked, "Where are the goods?" The other was led by Yitzhak Rabin, who asked "Where are our scruples?" and called the entire travesty "a stinking maneuver." More than a decade later, Gad Ya'acobi - who was a Labor Party minister in that cabinet - recalled that party whip Ramon's dramatic announcement that their party was going to present a no-confidence vote in the Shamir government to which it belonged, was made without first being approved at any formal party forum. Ya'acobi first heard of it on the radio. Ramon was, therefore, reckless on all fronts: the moral, the strategic and the tactical. It would prove to be a pattern. In 1992 he inspired Rabin's campaign strategy, which was to portray the celebrated general as a superhawk, a tactic that proved efficient and had only one flaw: It was a lie. Rabin was a declared dove since a January 1968 interview with Ha'aretz and never changed his views. But lying came to Ramon as naturally as stealing came to his friends in Shas, and the biggest lie would come after his spectacular conquest of the Histadrut. BEING THE sharp-sensed political animal he is, Ramon knew the public had grown sick of the unions, and set out to exploit that feeling. First, as Rabin's health minister, he passed the National Health Care Law that deprived the Histadrut of the automatic membership, and payments, of thousands of health fund clients. Then, in what seemed like political heroism, he challenged the unions' mandarins to a duel, resigning his cabinet seat and announcing he would run for the Histadrut's leadership. To everyone's astonishment, he won by a landslide, and overnight came to personify political daring, vision and self-sacrifice. This image lasted but several months. With Rabin's assassination, Ramon abandoned his pompous commitments to the Histadrut and joined the Peres cabinet; so what if he had promised thousands of voters he would devote himself to securing their workers' rights. He only meant it the way promises were meant in Jaffa's ramshackle backyards. Ramon was in politics not for the public, the state or even just the party; he was there for himself. And so, as in the "stinking maneuver" before it, he never showed signs of even realizing the immorality of what he had done, and he certainly never apologized for it. The same pattern emerged with Ramon's other two legacies, the security fence and Kadima. In both cases Ramon cleverly detected the public sentiment, but never for a second considered apologizing for having previously condemned such ideas as blasphemy. Back when he conceived the stinking maneuver, Ramon was among those who insisted a New Middle East was around the corner, that only a bunch of Shamirs and Netanyahus were standing in its way. It was a fair, if naive view in its time, and it certainly was fair to abandon it in the wake of this decade's violence. Yet the question still remained: How could the man who nearly derailed our entire parliamentary democracy for the sake of a peace deal with the Palestinians explain his summersault from there to the anti-terror fence, which monumentalizes the loss of faith in such a deal? This surely demanded some major "I was wrong" statement in the kind of televised speech that the eloquent, tall and strong-voiced Ramon was actually good at producing. It never came. And why should it have come? Did his buddy Ehud Olmert ever apologize for his long years a superhawk who didn't even vote for the peace agreement with Egypt, before flick-flacking from there all the way to breaking teenagers' skulls at Amona? Did Aryeh Deri ever apologize for misleading Labor the way he did back in 1990, or for having transformed from dove to hawk? For those three, ideas, land, platforms, alliances, jobs and entire government agencies had all become negotiable goods in a relentless race for authority whose stated purpose - socialism, capitalism, war, peace, faith or heresy - could change by the hour as long as the gyroscope remained focused on its target: power. Until now, Israel has been led by three generations. First came the founding fathers, some of whom were visionaries on the scale of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, and all of whom were as modest as Levi Eshkol and Shamir. Then came the generals, most of whom were narrow-minded and some of whom were corrupt, but none of whom could be accused of not having done for something for this country. And then came the horse thieves. To them, Jaffa's original Zionist dreamers were romantic idiots who did not understand the meaning of life - that power is not a means, but an end - just like they would reach tenderly for a girl's hand at dusk, instead of just grabbing her mouth and invading it.