With summer upon us, the Israeli television networks had been busy gearing up for the reality show season when all the recent political news hit. Maybe it’s because in the hot summer, we want to spend evenings in front of the television with the air conditioning going, but the really big shows make their season debut in the late spring and run through the summer. Dancing With the Stars and Survivor both hit the screen right after Passover, and A Star is Born (the local American Idol) and Beauty and the Geek are about to begin.
Television executives were likely taken aback when national politics became more dramatic, intriguing, absurd, and filled with competitive backstabbing than even the most creative scenario a reality show producer could dream up.
Our leaders have, indeed, taken us on a crazy rollercoaster ride over recent weeks - the news that early elections were upon us, the juggling and jostling within the various political, and then the shocking surprise jolt of the last-minute deal which created a unity government and the cancellation of the election plans.
It has all left the public dizzy and a little sick to our stomachs. That’s what rollercoaster rides tend to do. Dizziness, yes. But why the deep-seated anger, disgust and outcry in the streets?
Some observers abroad don’t really understand what all the fuss is about and why hundreds took to the streets to protest the Likud-Kadima coalition deal concocted by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and newly-elected Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz. They look at the bottom line. Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister leading a strong coalition. If elections were held, all the polls pointed to a clear victory for Likud, in which case he’d still be prime minister leading a strong coalition. And now - without elections - his unity government with Kadima and Shaul Mofaz, leaves him again - at the helm of the government leading a strong coalition. Nothing has changed. And nobody was really enthusiastic about dissolving the government and holding elections in the first place.
The real problem isn’t what Netanyahu and Mofaz did, but how they did it. While you can’t accuse Israelis of being naive about politics, and the parliamentary system is, indeed more complex than American-style direct elections, they do have some basic expectations of democracy.
Since it’s the season, I thought I’d put it in reality-show terms. We do still believe - or hope - that the process should resemble reality competition shows like American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. We watch politicians campaign and speechify, and after they are elected, lead their parties and fight for or against legislation. Sometimes they hit the high notes and dazzle or inspire us, or (more frequently) they stumble while dancing the two-step or the cha-cha. Sometimes we are more influenced by their personal back story or by the judges’ comments by their real singing or dancing talent. But ultimately, we, the audience, are the ones who get to make the decision each week: we get to send our text messages and decide who is worthy to lead, we call the shots, and the winner is the one that we pick.
Events like the last-minute Kadima-Likud deal are a slap in the face, reminding Israeli citizens that they aren’t watching either of these shows - they are watching Survivor. It’s a reality show that doesn’t reward looks, charm, or talent. The winner of Survivor is the player who knows how to change his alliances as a drop of a hat, betray loyal friends, and most importantly lie to everyone without blinking or feeling any twinge of regret or shame.
Benjamin Netanyahu looked us in the eye and said that it was vital to the national interest that we hold early elections. Shaul Mofaz looked us in the eye, said that Netanyahu was an untrustworthy liar, that he would never enter a government with Likud. Not weeks, not months, not days, but hours later, they were standing next to one another at a press conference stating the precise opposite. And even then, the lies continued. Mofaz preened and said he had made this decision because of principle, and that Kadima was not promised any ministries. Even Bibi looked stunned at that moment, because, of course, this wasn’t true either, as we would soon find out.
If this were indeed a reality show, and I was the producer, I would be thrilled. This kind of intrigue and surprise is what brings in the ratings. Netanyahu and Mofaz would be stars on Survivor. It’s great entertainment.
What won’t be quite so entertaining is when these men try to look us in the eye and explain why we should or shouldn’t attack Iran, or why we should or shouldn’t make concessions for peace with the Palestinians - and expect us to believe a word they are saying. Because, after all, this isn’t reality television, it’s reality.
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