My word: Political applause for thought

With speculation that Israel could, yet again, be heading for early elections, the intra-party divisions, while not new, have become more evident.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center March 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center March 6, 2018 in Washington, DC.
I recently found myself contemplating the Zen riddle regarding the sound of one hand clapping. A series of incidents – I metaphorically ticked them off on the hand that wasn’t otherwise engaged – took me back to covering politics many years ago.
In the tense atmosphere ahead of the 1996 elections, I attended a Likud event where boisterous party members stood on chairs to shout slogans of support for Benjamin Netanyahu. The veteran journalist next to me made disapproving tsk-ing noises and disparaging comments about their behavior. Both of us struggled to see the podium. I, however, saw something the experienced political commentator missed: enthusiasm. “They’ve got a chance of winning,” I correctly predicted to her further disgust. I couldn’t help but compare the atmosphere to Labor’s cold events.
On election night that year, the first time direct elections for the prime minister had been held alongside the Knesset vote, I was in Tel Aviv. Like many, I went to sleep thinking that Shimon Peres had won as the exit polls were predicting, and woke up to find that Netanyahu was the victor.
Many Tel Avivians wore black, which served as both a fashion statement and a political statement. I returned to Jerusalem by public transport, at a time when bus bombings had already claimed the lives of people I knew and not just political lives. The atmosphere in the working-class neighborhoods on the No. 18 bus route couldn’t have been more different.
The standing ovation Netanyahu received at this week’s AIPAC conference in Washington shows that he hasn’t lost his touch. He knows how to get his points across and he knows how to work a crowd. And for those at home muttering that he should immediately resign to concentrate on his defense in the many investigations surrounding him, he proved that he has the extraordinary ability to focus on the job at hand. I remember occasional all-night debates at the Knesset – most of them concerning either the budget or the perennial issue of conscription (or draft dodging) of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
Netanyahu would appear before the press in the early morning showing no signs of the lack of sleep.
Netanyahu is definitely obsessed by media coverage – more than most politicians, all of whom care what is written and said about them. But it is mutual: The press is also mesmerized by Netanyahu and his family. Whether either side crossed the line into the illegal remains to be seen. I would feel more comfortable about that gray area of relations between the media and politicians – what’s known in Hebrew as “hon, shilton, iton,” wealth, government and a newspaper – were there to be a full investigation launched into the move in 2014 to ban the pro-Netanyahu paper Israel Hayom – legislation over which Netanyahu nearly took the country to elections.
Given that readers of Yediot Aharonot know that its coverage is largely “anti-Bibi,” the same way that the Israel Hayom readership is aware the stories will be more supportive of the prime minister, recruiting politicians to try to close just one of the two biggest Hebrew-language newspapers amounts to a disturbing attack on democracy.
WATCHING FOOTAGE of Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump together in Washington this week, I was reminded of George W. Bush’s official visit for Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, a decade ago, when people joked that he was more popular here than then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and possibly more popular in Israel than at home altogether. Although several Democrats skipped Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress delivered in a desperate effort against the Iran deal – “This deal won’t be a farewell to arms. It would be a farewell to arms control” – he nonetheless received applause from both sides of the House.
With speculation that Israel could, yet again, be heading for early elections, the intra-party divisions, while not new, have become more evident.
I have always thought that a sign of good leadership is fostering an heir for when the time comes to move on. Obviously the country’s leaders don’t agree with me.
There is a split – or a rift – within the Likud, especially as the scandals surrounding Netanyahu’s name continue to grab headlines. Were Netanyahu to be forced to step down, the race to replace him would be ugly.
Internal divisions are not unique to the Likud, of course. Labor, from its earliest permutations, has always been plagued by camp politics, the best known being the enmity between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Even today, there is no love lost between party head Avi Gabbay and his predecessor Isaac Herzog, who is still considered head of the opposition. Similarly, the rivalry between MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Amir Peretz, who both headed the party in the past, is evident. Peretz and MK Tzipi Livni are at odds with Laborites in the Zionist Union. Their party-hopping is sad evidence of another worrying trend in Israeli politics – lack of loyalty to a specific party and the lack of clearly defined party platforms. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about a party leader you suspect is about to jump ship.
LAST WEEK, Meretz leader Zehava Gal- On announced that she was withdrawing her candidacy to continue as head of the left-wing party in the primary elections later this month. Shortly afterward, her main rival for the position, MK Ilan Gilon, also announced he was dropping out of the race. Gal-On, who resigned from the Knesset last year to concentrate on the leadership race, and Gilon were both hardworking and principled parliamentarians (even though my principles usually differed from theirs).
What caught the party by surprise was that Gilon explained his decision was due to ill-health and his hospitalization.
Meretz has only five members of Knesset – you’d have thought that someone would have noticed one of them was missing and expressed sympathy and concern.
Much of the media attention following their resignations concentrated on a changing of the generational guard as MK Tamar Zandberg, 41, was touted as the favorite candidate. Zandberg complimented Gal- On as being in the ranks of her predecessors as party heads – Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid. I well remember the rivalry between the two. Sarid once told me the only question he refused to answer was what he thought of Aloni.
When I was The Jerusalem Post’s Knesset reporter, I discussed with Sarid a bill set to raise the electoral threshold. He said he “had to oppose it” as it would affect the Arab parties.
Years later, similar legislation, led by Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, passed and as a result three “Arab parties” and Hadash (originally the Communist Party) combined to form the Joint List and together won 13 seats, more than ever before. They, too, however are naturally fragmented.
The “United” in United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox party that combines the Agudat Israel and Degel Hatorah factions, is also more wishful thinking than political fact. It’s possible that the argument over the conscription of haredim, which is again rocking the coalition, is part of an internal power struggle.
There is often tension, too, in Bayit Yehudi, an amalgamation of the National Religious Party and the National Union with representatives of Tekuma.
Meanwhile, this week MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, an outstanding parliamentarian who has concentrated on social issues, announced that she is setting up her own party, having earlier split from Yisrael Beytenu.
I doubt she will be able alone to garner enough votes to get into the Knesset.
Meretz, on the other hand, stands a better chance in the polls if a new leadership were to focus on social matters rather than being so strongly identified with the pro-Palestinian position. And my advice to the Arab MKs, for what it’s worth, is to concentrate on representing the Israeli-Arab electorate rather than acting as spokesmen for the Palestinians, who have their own parliament in Ramallah. Human rights, social welfare, closing social gaps and environmental protection should not be matters of Left and Right. Tackling these topics together is worthy of a standing ovation.
If only left and right hands could agree to clap.
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