[Editor’s note: Several issues of BibiWATCH are now available once again to read on this blog. Click here.]
Palestinian suicide bombers attack Tel-Aviv. The Israeli government blames Hamas. As support within Israel for any kind of peace deal with the Palestinians withers, pundits write that the Oslo process is dead.
It is June 1996 and Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has just been elected Israel’s Prime Minister.
Ordinarily, journalists begin articles that way to make the case that nothing has changed, or ever will change. But I want to do the opposite: to write about how much has changed in the last ten years in at least one important area.
When Netanyahu was elected, only months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, I was living on a kibbutz in the northern part of Israel. Active in the peace movement, a supporter of the left-wing Meretz party, I was devastated by the election result. The morning after — literally the morning after, as election night was a cliffhanger — one could see the shock in the faces of kibbutz members. After all the hope of the Rabin-Peres years, the beginnings of what seemed to be a reconcilation with not only the Palestinians but the entire Arab world, we awakened to a new reality.
It was then that I launched what was probably the first political blog in Israel. The word ‘blog’ didn’t yet exist, but that is exactly what ‘BibiWATCH’ was. Every Monday over the course of two years, I churned out an article.
In the very first edition of BibiWATCH, on 10 June 1996, I wrote about the government Netanyahu was likely to form. After listing the mostly likely candidates for the various ministerial posts, one worse than the other, I ended with, “It’s going to be a long four years.”
I was wrong about that. It was only three years before Netanyahu’s increasing unpopularity drove him from office. But in the course of those three years, he managed to sabotage and eventually kill off the Oslo peace process, which was his intention. Even if today Netanyahu is — thankfully — lost in the political wilderness, his lasting achievement is that he destroyed what Yitzhak Rabin had so painfully built.
The Israelis and Palestinians may be back to where they were in 1996 (or before), but blogging has moved on a bit.
Back in 1996, it really seemed as if blogs could change the world. For example, a year after Netanyahu’s election victory, I suggested that all websites which saw this as a catastrophe should turn their home pages black in mourning. Amazingly, all the websites of Israel’s opposition parties and peace movements did so. The story was picked up by the country’s leading daily newspaper which, in a full page spread, claimed that the ‘Internet Blackout’ of 1997 was a well-funded operation backed by the economic power of the kibbutz movement. (Actually, it was all done free of charge.)
In those days, not many people were online, but there were enough to ensure that BibiWATCH was well-read, and generated its share of fan mail, hate mail and death threats. One of the regular weekly readers was based in Netanyahu’s office. Once, after writing a column that suggested — for the first time — that Netanyahu had said something true, I received an email from the Prime Minister’s office thanking me for this.
But mostly I said nasty things, every one of which was deserved. They were usually things being said by others in the Israeli press — things which were commonplace in the Israeli media, but which shocked some Jews outside the country. (The irony of receiving emails from people in places like Los Angeles telling me that I was ‘anti-Israel’ was not lost on me at the time.)
And sometimes I would put together pieces of a jigsaw in a slighly more original way. I was particularly proud of having discovered some of the connections between Netanyahu and the Russian Mafia. Ultimately it was accusations of corruption more than the destruction of the peace process that probably brought Netanyahu down.
A decade ago, you could denounce a prime minister online and be certain that someone in his office was reading what you wrote and might even answer you. You could launch an online campaign (such as the Internet Blackout) and get lots of free publicity in offline media. And you could feel that this new medium was something extraordinarily powerful, and that politics would never be the same.