Showtime or showdown

What unites the Eurovision Song Contest and peace talks with Syria?

mauda eurovision 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
mauda eurovision 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Since there is a support group for almost everything nowadays I am considering seeking out those who, like me, have the courage to stand up and admit a past addiction to the Eurovision Song Contest. There. I've said it. I confess that whenever Europe's annual pop competition came around as I was growing up in London, "my heart went Boom Bang-a-Bang" in the words of Lulu, UK winner of 1969. I loved the music. I adored the presenter's dresses. I was riveted to the voting. I always gave the show "douze points" to use the phrase so common here it can be considered colloquial Hebrew. When "Waterloo" met its ABBA with the Swedish group's win (1974), I was cheering it on, although already with an eye on Israel. Israel first entered the competition the previous year when Ilanit sang Ei Sham (Somewhere). Those were not necessarily the good old days. In the wake of the 1972 Munich massacre, there were fears of a terrorist threat, particularly against Israel's singer. As the UK's long-serving commentator Terry Wogan often recalled, security was so tight that the floor manager advised the audience to remain seated while applauding the performances or risk being shot by anti-terrorist forces. Incidentally, the runner-up song that year, Spain's Eres Tu, proved a huge international hit despite charges that it had been plagiarized from an old Yugoslavian entry and rumors that the only reason it wasn't disqualified was that Franco's Spain was seen as more part of the European mainstream than Tito's Yugoslavia. Now even Yugoslavia no longer exists and this year so many countries (many of them from eastern Europe) took part that they had to hold the semifinals over a two-day period. Proof that I'm finally over my addiction is that I didn't watch either day, although I admit to sneaking a look at Israel's Boaz Mauda's excellent performance in the first semifinal. I THINK one of the reasons I used to love the contest was the escapist factor. Maybe I was simply younger and more innocent. Perhaps the world was a simpler place - hell, I even remember watching performances in black and white. Now the contest seems noisy, increasingly camp, and ever more irrelevant. Presenters patter inanities in Euro-English (take my lower-class, London-accented word for it - there is such a thing) and screech "Good evening Europe!" as if they didn't have the benefit of a microphone and wanted as many viewers as possible scattered between Andorra and the former Yugoslavian republics to hear them personally. Like all good Israelis, I revel in our successes - "A-Ba-Ni-Bi," sung by Yizhar Cohen in 1978, "Hallelujah" (Gali Atari with Milk & Honey) the following year, and (transsexual) Dana International in 1998. Similar to most of my countrymen (and -women), I tend to blame our losses on ever-present politics. In 1978, for example, Jordanian TV suspended the broadcast while Israel's song was being performed, and when it became apparent during the later stages of the voting that Israel was going to win, JRTV abruptly ended the transmission. Well, at least we now have peace with the Hashemite kingdom. I remember clearly the day the peace talks were announced in October 1994: While rejoicing at the obviously positive development I couldn't help thinking that the out-of-the-blue timing could have something to do with the Rabin government's need to cheer up the nation, which was in a state of collective mourning for the death of kidnapped soldier Nachshon Wachsman. Last week, mid-Eurovision semifinals, it was announced simultaneously in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara that Syria and Israel are holding non-direct negotiations with Turkey as the facilitator. I'm still cynical. In this very column last week I noted the revival of the phrase "Ke'omek hahakira, omek hanesiga" - roughly translatable as: "The deeper the investigation, the deeper the evacuation." The term was used to describe Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan while he was subject to police inquiries and was a play on Yitzhak Rabin's oft-pronounced stand regarding the depth of peace and the extent of the possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights. THANKS TO the Eurovision, I can actually see peace with Iran before peace between Israel and Syria. Why the Eurovision context? In 2003, I spent five days in Istanbul as the only Israeli in the company of journalists from around the world, including Iran and Pakistan. Uncharacteristically, I found myself in the early hours of one morning in a smoky nightclub dancing to Turkey's Eurovision winner with the Iranian guys, who were far better dancers than I. Correctly suspecting there were no nightclubs in Teheran, I asked them where they usually danced. "We have some great parties in our private homes, Liat," came the reply. The ice completely melted and the Iranians introduced me to a number of friends and acquaintances. One older man all but kissed me, recalling how, in the days of the shah, his baby sister had required cardiac surgery and had flown to Haifa where the doctors at Rambam Hospital had saved her life. All the Iranians I met, journalists and businessmen alike, believed that there would eventually be peace between Israel and Iran. The next day we all got on a bus and in the brotherhood-of-man, Eurovision-style spirit I struck up a conversation with two Syrians. They asked where I had learned Arabic and when I replied, "al-Quds" (Jerusalem) they muttered to each other something it's probably best I didn't understand and said nothing more to me. This week's development implies that were we to meet again, they might at least be willing to acknowledge my existence. But peace with Syria is still a long way off. And the price could be impossibly high given the Syrians are already insisting Israel withdraw from the entire Golan Heights. As Kassams continue to rain down on the Negev following the Gaza withdrawal, there is probably less support than ever before for leaving the Golan in return for a promise from Syrian President Bashar Assad. It is doubtful such a proposal would even be able to muster the Knesset absolute majority of at least 61 MKs necessary for it to pass. And then it would need to win a majority in a public referendum. Remember when the Israeli group Ping Pong waved Syrian flags at the end of their 2000 Eurovision entry? They not only flopped in the contest but they lost most support back home. And a vote in a public referendum is not the same as a Eurovision vote. As Cliff Richard sang in 1973 (UK, third place), "Power to all our friends." But we are not, as Sandie Shaw (UK, 1967) put it, "a puppet on a string." A lot has to change before Turkey and the US can join together in a rendition of Richard's "Congratulations" (second place, '68). And it's not over until the proverbial fat lady in Damascus sings along with her Jerusalemite peer: "Hallelujah!"