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Sunday, November 10, 2002

The election has only just been called and already the inter-city roads are decorated with banners. Most of the are the usual “vote for me” fare but striking are those for the anti-Mitznah campaign. Remember that Mitznah has rocked the boat, coming in as an outsider to what was expected to be the usual factional squabble within the Labour party. Both Ramon and Ben-Eliezer are annoyed with him.

Last night, I caught a few minutes of Mitznah on the television, and was immediately put off by two things he said.

First, he proclaimed that he was ideally suited to running the country after four years as mayor of Haifa. He pointed out that most American presidents have served previously as governors, i.e. as head of local governments rather than as Washington hacks.

That may be true, but Mitznah seems to have forgotten that Israel does not have the presidential system. Their failure to remember this fact caused the downfall of both Netanyahu and Barak. Netanyahu found his government fell to pieces as one minister after another left him. Barak arrogantly proclaimed that he didn’t deal in petty politics and lasted even longer. One of Sharon’s greatest successes was in keeping his government together for so long, precisely by preening the egos of all the various hacks around him. I remember hearing once on the radio about how left-wing journalists had complained because Sharon had held a reception at the PM’s residence where the food was excellent. In these austere times, the journalists rumbled, the PM ought to set an example and cut back. I recall thinking at the time that a good meal for the hacks is a small price to pay for political stability and smooth-running government, is certainly cheaper than a general election. Mitznah would merely be the latest in a line of “outsiders” with no Knesset experience who thinks he can run the show like an American president. Unless the system of government is reformed, it seems that we’re better off with a PM who knows the ways of the Knesset and can call on a few favours when he needs to.

The second thing that annoyed me – even more than the silly comment about the US presidency – was when Mitznah called for a “return to the situation [hametziut] of seven years ago, that was cut off [she-niqte`a]”. “Seven years ago” is of course an allusion to the murder of Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin.

Yes, it was murder, and it was a terrible crime, as all murders are. Yes, it was politically motivated. As far as I’m concerned, they can lock the murderer and his accomplices up forever and throw away the key. But don’t let’s pretend that prior to Rabin’s assassination everything was just great.

Prior to Rabin’s assassination Israeli political culture was, in my opinion, in the worst situation it had been for many years. Rabin was leading a minority government that relied upon bought Knesset seats (remember the BMW?) and anti-Zionist parties in order to force upon the Israeli public a political settlement that it was not willing to accept. The Prime Minister himself – yes, much as it pains me to say this after his death, Yizhak Rabin – acted as though the opinions of the public were of no concern to him.

He lashed out at anybody who dared to criticise him employing abusive language unbecoming of a Prime Minister (“bablat”, “kugel-lager”), called them “propellers”, “enemies of peace” and describing the Likud as “collaborators with the Hamas”. He made anti-democratic statements, such as saying that only people who had fought in all of Israel’s wars had the right to decide defense issues (so much for the universal ballot!). He and his supporters invented the Orwellian term “victims of peace” to describe Jews murdered in Palestinian terrorist attacks, and refused to send government representatives to their funerals – funerals that took place several times a week, at a far greater rate than prior to the Oslo agreement. (These were, of course, political murders, since, as the late and greatly lamented Prof. Ehud Sprinzak pointed out [e.g. here], their perpetrators sought to alter the state's decision-making process, which is the meaning of "political".) Oh, and let us not forget the use of the security forces to discredit the political right, the entire scope of which has not yet come to light.

Of course, it was not all one sided. The calls for rebellion stemming from the right, and the vitriolic language used to describe the left, contributed the to terrible climate of those days.

I recall one particular incident that struck me is informative. Shortly before Rabin’s murder, a meeting was held between him and the Settler leaders in an attempt to defuse the situation. I remember seeing on the television the stunned Settler leadership emerging from the meeting. They proclaimed that they had gone in all good faith to try to discuss with Rabin their differences, but that he had laughed at them and been rude to them. It seemed that there was no-one to talk to.

On the first anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I read an interview with Eitan Haber, who had been his director of the Prime Minister’s office. In that interview, he related to the same meeting with the Settler leaders. He recalled fondly how the leaders had come in to see Rabin, but how Rabin, with his characteristic directness, had told them where to get off. I was shocked – not only had Rabin done nothing to defuse the situation, but Haber was still PROUD of the way that the Prime Minister had behaved, as though this was a sign of being a real guy!

So to Mitznah, I say this: “al ta-axil lanu et halokshen hazzeh”, which roughly translates, don’t try to sell us this BS. It may work on “dor ha-nerot”, the young kids who lit candles and thought that peace was just around the corner. It may work on Yossi Beilin and his followers. But for people like me, “middle Israel”, the floating voter who wants peace but doesn’t want to commit suicide, it just doesn’t work. Don’t try to sell us a rosy view of the Rabin years, because we were there and were old enough to remember what it was like. And if you’re promising to return us to that period, then all I can assume that the public has a very short memory.

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