May 28, 1998
Politics, Israeli Style
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
Photo by Peter Halmagyi
Some of you may have caught last week's New Yorker (May 25) with journalist David Remnick's profile of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If not, I urge you to call the magazine's offices in New York and order a back copy, or simply visit your local library.
Remnick offers us a portrait of Bibi as The Outsider.
"The riddle of Netanyahu is that so many Israelis find him personally insufferable, and yet if there were an election tomorrow, he would almost certainly defeat the Labor standard-bearer.... The Orthodox know all about Bibi's secular indiscretions -- the pandering, the philandering. The far-right nationalists cannot yet decide whether he wants to kill the Oslo peace process [as they would like] or not. Both the Russian émigrés and the Sephardim know that he is not one of them. Nevertheless, these outsider constituencies believe that Bibi is better for their interests than the Ashkenazic elites of the Labor Party."
That, of course, is Remnick's view, a summary analysis of his interviews in Israel. But his sources are all there for us to read, boldly on the record: no reticence, no polite euphemisms, no political side-stepping by Netanyahu's colleagues, either in Likud or in his government.
David Bar-Illan, for example, is one of the prime minister's key aides, and a good friend as well. When Remnick asks about Bibi's attempts to win over the Orthodox voters, given both his record of adultery and his reputation for being ultra-secular, Bar-Illan rolls his eyes.
Then, speaking directly, he tells the American journalist about his boss: "Finessing his being secular was nothing compared to other things, like adultery," Bar-Illan tells Remnick. "One thing is to have an affair with a shiksa -- but a married woman. With a shiksa, even the rebbes do it. But a married woman! Now Bibi'll go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, maybe he's gone to the Western Wall, or he'll say the phrase 'With God's help.' But he's not fooling anyone." All of this from the prime minister's press secretary. (As The Journal went to press, word reached us that Bar-Illan denied all of the passages attributed to him. However, Remnick stands by his quotes.)
Party support and collegiality apparently also play a bit differently in Israel than, say, in the United States. Remnick calls Yitzhak Shamir, the former Likud prime minister, shortly after arriving in Jerusalem. "Bibi?" Shamir said in his exhausted Old World accent. "He is not a very trustworthy man."
Shamir pauses for a moment. Perhaps he suddenly realizes that he is speaking on the record to a journalist. But, no. "He's too egotistical," he continues. "He had many advantages. But people don't like him. I wouldn't say he is admired. I don't believe he believes in anything. He has a huge ego. People don't like such people. I don't like him."
It's difficult thinking of any Republican -- Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole come to mind -- saying such things on the record about George Bush, or even about the late Richard Nixon.
We, of course, do not experience a shy press in the United States. The running saga of Monica Lewinsky is evidence of that. But we are not particularly blessed with forthright public officials, from the president on down. Evasion, prevarication, just plain stalling when nothing else will help are the order of the day, whether it come from staff, public relations advisers or party stalwarts. Perhaps that is one reason the turnout for the primary election this Tuesday is expected to be so low.
Is there a lesson here for us? Do we want such forthrightness from our political leaders and their associates? Those of us who answer affirmatively presumably believe that candor and truthfulness can only be healthy for the body politic. That an end to political lying, along with those bland messages that ring out with sincere piety and patriotism, can only benefit political consumers like us.
But, of course, it is not quite that simple. Israeli politicians attempt to manipulate the voting public no less than do their American counterparts. There is no absence of "politicalspeak" in Hebrew, and, certainly, there is a comparable amount of chicanery and influence peddling within government.
The differences appear to present themselves among the political professionals -- those inside the Jerusalem beltway, so to speak. From Remnick's account, at least -- and from other stories that have appeared in the press over the last decade -- Israeli politicians feel little need to disguise their feelings when talking about one another. No velvet glove here.
Perhaps we can attribute this to the comparative smallness of numbers, perhaps to the familiar stereotype about Israeli brusqueness. In any event, to this American reader, it comes across as human and, just for the minute, a bracing dash of reality at a time when language looks to have lost its meaning. --Gene Lichtenstein