Israel has a tradition that state visitors are taken to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial before they go anywhere else in the country. Before they speak to the assembled Knesset, before they visit the President’s official residence in Jerusalem, even before they get to unpack their bags in the King David Hotel, they pay homage to the six million Jews whose murder is permanently bound up with the creation of the state of Israel.
State visitors to the United States, on the other hand, are required, upon their arrival in the country, to report to the CNN studios in Washington for an appearance on “Larry King Live”. Because of the “special relationship” between Israel and America, our Prime Minister gets to make part of his state visit even before boarding Israel Air Force One; he paid a “virtual visit” to Larry King late last week.
In the good old days, I could have described the Bibi & Larry Show as being like a Chinese dinner; an hour later, you’re still hungry. But that would not do credit to Chinese food, so a more appropriate metaphor is eating at McDonald’s. To be more precise, hearing the 45 minutes of Bibi-Larry-talk is like eating Chicken McNuggets. And I don’t have to tell you how you’ll feel an hour later.
There were at least seven times during the show when I wish we really had “interactive television.” I would have loved to have called out to Larry King (or at least whispered in his ear) some of the questions I would asked our Prime Minister.
1. Larry King’s Scoop: Bibi agrees to meet with Assad.
King asked Bibi if he’d be willing to meet Syrian dictator Assad, and Bibi said, “Sure.” King thought he’d scored a real journalistic coup, and repeated the question. Then he gloated that maybe he had pulled off what “Walter Cronkite did with Begin and Sadat.” Bibi corrected King, pointing out that it was actually Barbara Walters who had done some of the television matchmaking between the Israelis and Egyptians two decades ago. (A minor detail.) King was delighted with his scoop — “Israeli P.M. Agrees — On Larry King Live — To Meet Syrian Tyrant”.
Only one problem with Larry King’s scoop — which he defined as “a positive development” right there on the air: it’s been Israeli policy since, well, forever, that Israeli leaders will meet with Arab heads of state. Israel always had an interest in Arab leaders giving our little Jewish state that kind of recognition, and every Israeli leader has always said this, including those who did the least to further the peace process, like Yitzhak Shamir.
Larry, you could have asked Bibi something a little harder like, “Do you really think it’s possible to advance the peace process on the Syrian track if you won’t even consider territorial compromise on the Golan?” The kind of question that Walter Cronkite — and maybe even Barbara Walters — would have thought of without help.
2. A Hebron history lesson.
So, are you Israelis going to live up to your obligations under the Oslo accord, and redeploy your troops in Hebron? That was a question King tried to ask Bibi — no doubt inserted into his list by an astute researcher there at CNN. And how did Bibi face up to what is really a difficult question, perhaps the central question facing the Israelis and Palestinians right now? Will Israel redeploy in Hebron? Yes or no? Well actually, neither. Instead of answering the question, he gave King a history lesson, talking about how important Hebron is to the Jewish people, going back 3,500 years, Abraham and the other Patriarchs and all that. Did he answer unequivocally that Israel would do what it promised to do? No.
Bibi eventually returned to the situation in Hebron today, mentioning that there were something like 5,000 Jews (he was throwing in Kiryat Arba to get to that number; there are about 200 Jews in Hebron itself) and 100,000 Arabs in that city. And then the P.M. corrected himself, “maybe more than that.” Maybe more than 100,000 Arabs in Hebron. But Hebron was still a Jewish city; that was important to note. Jews had lived there continuously, sort of, for several thousand years. You could look it up in Paul Johnston’s “History of Jews”, Bibi told Larry.
“That’s fine, Mr. Netanyahu, but are you going to redeploy the IDF, yes or no?” That would have been the follow-up question I’d have asked, but — hey — King wants Bibi to return again and again to the show. Why make an issue of it if he chooses to duck the hard questions? What do you think I am, King might ask in self-defense, a journalist?
3. Bibi’s skills as a negotiator.
Larry King caught our Prime Minister at a particularly bad moment. Foreign Minister David Levy had just told the press, while sitting next to Netanyahu, that he was going to resign if Bibi didn’t bring Arik Sharon into the government right now. Bibi has had better evenings than this one, and no doubt his mind was on the pressing problem of how to squeeze Sharon into his government. King asked about this, just like that. “Would you care to comment?” And Bibi answered that he always wanted Arik in the government, really, and was working intensively on the problem for several weeks now, and didn’t need pressure from anyone, thank you.
As it turned out, the night that Levy threatened to quit was the night that Sharon found his place in the Israeli cabinet. Levy’s threat worked. For those of us who can remember all the way back to the election campaign, and this apparently doesn’t include the research staff at “Larry King Live,” one of the key points Bibi made every night in television ads was his great skill as a negotiator. He would never cave in under pressure. He knew how to stand up to threats from the Americans, the Arabs and everyone else. He had proven this — well, he hadn’t exactly proven this anywhere, but just wait and see. This Prime Minister would not be a pushover.
King could have asked him, “If you collapse under the pressure of David Levy’s threats — and this is not the first time this has happened — how do you plan to handle negotiations with Assad or anyone else?” But he didn’t.
4. Shimon Peres.
“What role do you see for former Prime Minister Shimon Peres?” was the polite way Larry King broached what is, in fact, a complex problem. After all, the Likud had targeted Peres personally for decades, with a sustained campaign of character assassination without precedent in Israeli politics. (Persistent rumors about Peres’ “Arab mother” were only one small part of the campaign.) But that’s history. The other side of the question would have to be, was Netanyahu bluffing when he talked — right up until the end of the campaign — about inviting Labor into the government?
Bibi answered by talking about how Israeli prime ministers tended not to resign, but to continue in their political lives and return to their posts, promising that he would not do this and would really step down in another 8 years (if re-elected in the year 2000). He also told CNN viewers, who may know no better, just how much he really admires and likes Shimon Peres. Really. Larry King grinned and moved on to the next question. I’d have stopped Bibi right there and repeated the question, sharpening it: “Are you going to invite Peres into a national unity government, yes or no? And how do you reconcile your sudden show of affection for Peres now, when during your whole political career you did nothing but denounce and defame him?”
5. Coming home to America.
King casually asked Bibi if this visit to America was like coming home. He asked it so casually that I sort of hoped that Bibi would be caught off guard and say, “Sure” in that oh-so-American way he has of sounding spontaneous. But Bibi is media-savvy and there’s not an ounce of spontaneity in his performance on a show like “Larry King Live.” He shot back that Israel is his home, not America, much as he likes the USA and studied there and so forth. The gentleman doth protest too much.
King’s polite question came at just about the same time that Israeli politics were being rocked by allegations that Bibi had files in the U.S. Social Security Administration under four names, and that these files were denied access to requesters under the Freedom of Information Act. According to reports in Israeli local newspapers published by the Schocken chain (including Tel Aviv’s Ha’Ir), those files could be sealed off only if the person involved was a terrorist, a government agent, someone hidden under the federal witness protection program, stuff like that. Which one was Bibi? Labor Party MK Dalia Itzik brought the issue up before the Knesset, but her effort to get the matter cleared up was suppressed by the new Likud Speaker of the Knesset, Dan Tichon. To the simple question, “Who are you Benjamin (Binyamin) Netanyahu?”, the Likud was answering, “Don’t ask.” Larry King could have put the question more bluntly: “What is it about your past in the United States that you want to hide, Mr. Netanyahu?”
6. Sarah and the kids.
“Why are you bringing your wife and kids to Washington?” was more or less how Larry King raised this sensitive issue, and Bibi replied with a joke — “In part because we no longer have a nanny.” King guffawed, and went on to the next question.
The real issue here is one of style versus substance. Netanyahu wants to introduce a kind of American style Presidency into Israel, something this frontier democratic society — and it still a frontier democratic society — is not at all used to. Previous Prime Ministers, and this included Likud and Labor leaders both, kept their private and political lives separate. When you elected Shimon Peres your Prime Minister, you were getting Peres — not the whole Peres family. This focused attention on Peres’ beliefs, values and skills, and not on appearance and style. For ceremonial tasks, including those which might require a nation to have a “First Lady” (a silly, pre-feminist notion if there ever was one), we already have a President and his wife, who are doing their duties just fine, thank you.
“Are you bringing your wife and kids to Washington in order to endear yourselves to the American media and population, and to divert attention away from your policies?” is the way I’d had asked Bibi about the family visit to America’s capital.
7. “Russia’s democratic tradition” — and Israel’s.
At the very end of the interview, Larry King asked Bibi Netanyahu how he felt about the Russian Presidential elections which were taking place at that very moment. Bibi hesitated, then said that he’d rather not comment on elections in other countries. But he added that it was important to uphold Russia’s democratic tradition. He actually said that: “Russia’s democratic tradition.”
Alright, let’s say it was just a slip of the tongue. But what it might reveal is Bibi’s attitude toward democracy and the multi-party system. On the surface, of course, Bibi is a committed democrat. So is Yeltsin. Of course we know that Yeltsin’s people engaged repeatedly in past elections in massive vote fraud — there is no questioning of this fact — and it was probably the case this year too. But if the results are a victory for the “moderates” and a defeat for the “conservatives”, the world (meaning: the banks and transnational corporations) is prepared to ignore it. Democracy is a relative thing. It now appears that Bibi’s allies, particularly the ultra-Orthodox haredi parties which did so well in the May 1996 elections — may have also engaged in massive vote fraud. This week a Jerusalem court rejected the Labor Party’s request for a vote recount. Labor is considering an appeal. The court did not deny errors, irregularities and probably deliberate vote fraud, but insisted that a recount would not change the result. The Likud’s line was the same: Labor has to learn to live with the election results, even if those results were achieved in some part by fraud.
And the Likud was saying this during the same week that it was suppressing a discussion of Netanyahu’s past on the floor of the Knesset.
“When you speak about Russia’s democratic tradition, Mr. Netanyahu, are you telling us something about your own ideas of democracy?”
Letters from Readers
I love it, politics and humor, perfect together. Keep up the good work. Pretty soon Bibi will be echoing Rodney Dangerfield ” I don’t get no respect”. Or did he already do that? I think we should lay odds on how long this abortion of a government is going to last before the first no-confidence vote. Winner gets a free trip to Kiryat Arba. — Dr. William Friend, USA
If you are a Jew, an Israeli, why don’t you respect the democratic vote? Why don’t you understand the will of your own people? Why don’t you give your new elected government a chance? Why don’t you respect your PM? Do you really believe that Netanyahu wants a war? Why don’t you make a “YasserWATCH”? Are you a real Israeli? — Lior, Israel
I do respect the democratic right of any people to make a mistake. And I’m sure I understand the “will of the people” as well as anyone. Why should I give the new government a chance? Are they giving poor people a chance? (Or giving peace a chance? — to coin a phrase.) I respect my new Prime Minister; I just don’t agree with him or trust him. No, I don’t believe that Netanyahu wants war –but I do think that he doesn’t know the way to achieve peace. I think it’s the responsibility of Palestinians, first of all, to watch their own elected government. Am I a real Israeli? What do you mean by “real”?
After reading BibiBASH #4 (I didn’t bother with the back issues) I must say that your work looks to me like the spitting “mirror image” of another great (big? fat? heavy?) American — the (literally) “300 pound gorilla” of American talk-radio, ultra-conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
For the uninformed Israelis, Mr. Limbaugh is a Republican political commentator who is determined to discredit all the Liberals in the US, and in particular — to destroy Bill Clinton and his presidency. In his quest to achieve this goal, Mr. Limbaugh does not shy away from any lowbrow tactic, mercilessly bashing the Democrats and the Clintons for 3.5 hours every day, dispensing in the process with any trace of truth, logic, or even common decency. Not surprisingly, every week some 20 million fools tune in to listen to his abhorrent rhetoric, and the man has gotten filthy rich (or, should I say: the filthy man has gotten rich?)
While I’m sure you won’t like Mr. Limbaugh’s politics (he’s an extreme right winger, a capitalist, and a great admirer of Bibi), you and he have very much in common (which only proves my point that politics should not be measured on a linear scale, since the extreme left and the extreme right are much closer to each other as they are to the moderate majority).
Much like Mr. Limbaugh, your commentaries tend to be thin on facts and objectivity, relying instead on rumors, innuendoes, personal attacks, and far-fetched “dream scenarios”, which you cleverly use to preach to the choir. While it may be entertaining to some (IMHO, it’s an acquired taste!), please do not expect to be taken seriously.
Regardless of my personal feelings on the recent election results (hint! hint! — I’m not aligned with either the left or the right), it was Labor’s election to lose, and they did. Hence, I believe the new government deserves a fair chance. Bibi’s successes and/or failures will be yours and mine to bear, so I sincerely hope that he does well. — Gary Schloss, Haifa and Studio City, California, USA
I caught Limbaugh’s show the last time I was in the U.S., and the only thing I see that we have in common is that Rush does use humor — sometimes quite effectively — in his critique of the Clinton administration. If we had more in common — for example, if BibiWATCH was one thousandth as effective as Limbaugh in reaching a mass audience and getting it to move — I wouldn’t mind.
Keep up the good work! A gauche, a gauche, tourjours a gauche!– Adam Simms, New York City, USA
Adam edits the excellent biweekly newsletter, PS. I recommend that all readers of BibiWATCH check it out.
I do not think it is fair to criticize a government that has just begun to work . And I do not think that it is fair to do it knowing that he was DEMOCRATICALLY elected by the majority of Israel. I think your work is destructive .You only serve to weaken Israel’s position and to make stronger Israel’s enemies position .For … What is better for Israel’s enemies than to show that “EVEN the Jews are against Israel’s policy.” I hope you will understand this and stop this . . . . .I still hope my words will find some little corner in your heart and this night when you will lie in bed , you will feel that it is not OK what you are doing . — Dvainsen
You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll never publish BibiWATCH again.
Which reminds me of an old joke that used to run around the Jewish anti-StalinistLeft in New York City. It went like this. Stalin is addressing a crowd in Red Square. He denounces Trotsky for hours on end. Then, in a dramatic stroke, he produces a piece of paper. “I have here a telegram from Trotsky himself, admitting all his crimes!” The crowd gasps. Moishe, the little Jewish tailor, shakes his head in disbelief. Stalin reads the telegram: “Comrade Stalin — You are right. I was wrong. I should apologize. –Trotsky.” The words are greeted by a stunned silence. But Moishe speaks up. “I think you misunderstood the message,” he tells the Soviet leader. “Maybe it should be read this way: “Comrade Stalin — YOU are right? I was wrong? I should apologize? — Trotsky.”
Internet Peace Radio
Silent no longer
In our issue of 24 June 1996, we responded to a reader in South Africa who asked if it wouldn’t be a good idea to revive Kol HaShalom (The Voice of Peace), the radio station which for decades expressed the desire of people in Israel and elsewhere in the region for a just and lasting peace. Well, hell yes it would be a good idea to revive Kol HaShalom, but we also think that this is a good time to begin work on using the enormous potential of the Internet — including its global reach, which a local radio station lacks — to get the message out. We’ve been doing that with the simple text file we call BibiWATCH but we also think there’s another approach which could supplement BibiWATCH’s weekly appearance — Internet Peace Radio.
Most people who buy computers these days buy multimedia computers, which means at the very least, sound cards and speakers. People who have ordinary computers can add on sound cards and speakers for very little money. So for the 50 million of so people out there on the Internet, it is possible — or would be with only a small investment of money — to turn their computers into receivers for radio transmissions.
The technology to do this has been pioneered by a program called “RealAudio” and if you haven’t heard this yet, you’ve got to check it out. If you have a soundcard and speakers, and an Internet connection, go the RealAudio home page and download their player (it’s free of charge!).
Let’s do it
Sometime in the very near future, this site is going to begin test broadcasts using RealAudio of what we’re calling, for now, Internet Peace Radio. If you have any experience with radio broadcasts, or with creating sound files on computers; if you have a good microphone, a good speaking voice, or know more about this than we do (which is not a lot), let us know. Let’s work together and launch the first Internet radio station devoted to building peace in the Middle East.