Text size

More than eight years ago, Shelly Yachimovich, then a presenter of the daily current events program "Hakol Diburim" ("It's All Talk"), was sitting in front of a group of admiring students from an Israel Radio reporters course, explaining to them that they shouldn't have mercy on politicians.

In her somewhat metallic voice, in a typical decisive tone, she explained the difference between interviews with ordinary people, who just happened to find themselves involved in a media event, and interviews with politicians, who choose to place themselves in the public arena, and therefore should not be treated with mercy.

Yesterday, in a move that sent major reverberations through the media and the public, Yachimovich, 45, announced she was joining the Labor Party under the leadership of Amir Peretz. The opinionated journalist threw herself into the political arena, where there is no mercy and where no questions remain unasked.

"Entering politics is an option I have often considered," said Yachimovich yesterday in an interview with Haaretz. "I remember handling many issues as a journalist, and asking myself why I couldn't simply prevent them. As a journalist, I never concealed my views and I also led campaigns, for example, in favor of the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon, or for increasing the awareness of the status of women. In recent years, I did everything possible to change the one-dimensional capitalist public discourse. It's a way of life and a worldview. I want to influence the agenda."

Only two and a half weeks ago, Yachimovich interviewed Amir Peretz on her program on Channel 2 news, immediately after he was elected to the leadership of the Labor Party. The Channel 2 News Company, as well as Yachimovich herself, emphasized that at the time of the interview, she was not yet considering joining the party.

"Peretz approached me a week ago," says Yachimovich. "I rejected the proposal out of hand, and afterwards it seeped into me. I strongly identify with him, his worldview is identical to mine. There hasn't been any politician with whom I identified so strongly. I've known him for many years, since he was the mayor of Sderot and I was a reporter in the south. It's clear that if he were not leading the party, I wouldn't have joined. This is a point in time when after many years, there is really a social democratic alternative."

Does your step express despair of your limited ability as a journalist to influence the situation?

Yachimovich: "The press has a certain power, but I'm afraid we are entering an era in which there will no longer be room for journalists like me. The media are controlled by tycoons, and their power is unlimited. The only hope for democracy now is politics that will regulate the rampaging jungle here. We have to place all our hope in that. I'm talking about steadily increasing power, which knows no limits. As of today, the major tycoons have more power than do the politicians. They bequeath this power to their children and their grandchildren, just as in a feudal dynasty, and there is an acute need to strengthen the political system."

At the epicenter

Yachimovich herself is an exception to the situation she describes. During her entire career, she has succeeded in finding a place at the epicenter of the major media outlets - Israel Radio and afterwards the Channel 2 News Company. From there she brought to the forefront issues that had been marginalized, in a manner that aroused quite a lot of anger and criticism on the part of her opponents, but was also the source of her strength and the secret of her success. The control of the media by tycoons may sideline anyone who wants to introduce critical discourse against them, as Yachimovich claims, but at the same time, those same media base their economic success on people like her, journalists who draw fire.

One person who understood that was Shalom Kital, the CEO of the News Company, who is largely responsible for Yachimovich's advancement. He was the one who employed her at Israel Radio in the south in 1986, when she was a young reporter at the now-defunct newspaper Al Hamishmar and a student of psychology and sociology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva.

Seven years later, as director of the Israel Radio news division, it was Kital who took a chance and gave Yachimovich the flagship program of Reshet Bet (the second radio network) "Hakol Diburim," after the departure of Razi Barkai.

The connection between Yachimovich and Kital is not self-evident. Kital, as the person who shaped the image of the most widely watched daily news broadcast, is identified with a relatively conservative journalistic viewpoint that favors objectivity and does not attempt to breach the boundaries of the central discourse.

"I owe Kital much more than the fact that he promoted me," says Yachimovich. "I owe him for the journalistic ethos. He always encouraged me not to be afraid and to live in peace with the journalistic worldview and journalistic work. He told me, don't try to step into Razi's big shoes. Are you a crazy feminist? Be a crazy feminist. He was also the one who took a lot of flak. My slot, `Gilui Da'at' (`Speaking My Mind') was very problematic for the Channel 2 franchisers, for the tycoons and for the advertisers. There was local pressure over almost every program and I received admirable support."

The most memorable incident in this context was a spiteful and virulent letter sent her by Shari Arison's PR man Rani Rahav (the letter began: "Dear Wicked Shelly"). Yachimovich had criticized Arison for threatening a lawsuit against the Histadrut labor federation campaign that followed the plan to dismiss 900 employees of Bank Hapoalim, which is owned by Arison.

But behind the scenes are many other, unpublicized incidents. Someone in the news company says that in the wake of criticism voiced by Yachimovich regarding a philanthropic campaign in which McDonald's was involved, the McDonald's franchisee in Israel, Omri Padan, applied pressure to have her apologize. "She claims such actions are not philanthropy, but a pure marketing ploy, and that aroused a great deal of anger at McDonald's," says the source. "They wanted her to take back her words."

Kital explained yesterday that criticism about the conservatism of the Channel 2 news is a "stereotype." "It's not true that there are areas we are afraid to touch, we simply do it intelligently," says Kital. "I don't agree with some of the things Shelly says, but I fought to my last drop of blood so she could say them. That was an extraordinary asset in our relationship. The media are in need of variety, and opinions should be voiced on them even if these opinions are not acceptable to the head of the system. I send her a hug and I wish her well."

Abandoning Arafat

Yachimovich, a divorcee and mother of two, defines herself as a socialist and a feminist. If one follows her journalist work over the years, one sees development both in her worldview and in her areas of interest. She used to be very involved with politics as the Israel Radio reporter on political parties, but what she brought to center stage was the feminist issue and the problem of violence against women. When she received "Hakol Diburim," together with Carmela Menashe (and a coalition of women that was formed at Israel Radio), she led the struggle of the Four Mothers movement for IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. The struggle made a significant contribution to changing public opinion on this issue, and in recent years, she has dealt extensively with social and economic subjects.

"It was clear to me," says Yachimovich," that on `Hakol Diburim' they expected me to deal with the Palestinian issue. There were several events that led me to understand that the obsessive discourse about security creates a very large vacuum on other issues. I understood that the discussion of this issue was meaningless, so I abandoned Arafat, the Muqata and the territories.

"I began the first program of `Hakol Diburim' with the case of a man from Jerusalem who had burned his girlfriend to death. Almost nobody else dealt with it that day," she says, "and I received ricochets about it from all directions. I decided on a deliberate discussion of the suppression of women."

Yachimovich sees preoccupation with the socialeconomic issue as a direct continuation of the feminist issue. "Feminism is not only representation for women. The disintegration of society harms women first and foremost. Every woman pays a high price for this disintegration, more than men. I understood it was impossible to stick with bourgeois feminism that talks about the need for representation on boards of directors. The social and feminist issue are one and the same." Now, as a politician, she promises to continue to deal with these issues.

"I think a false belief has taken root here, that we have to grease and oil and pour money on the wealthy, so that in some mysterious way, the poor will also receive crumbs. That is a despicable and harmful economic viewpoint. We have to divide the resources in a more just manner. Practically speaking, we have to prevent ... the unlimited accumulation of wealth by people who become billionaires. We have to prevent the harmful phenomenon of trading in human beings and employment by means of contractors, which is a type of slavery, and we have to guarantee a fair minimum wage, instead of treating workers like merchandise that passes from one employer to another."

You understand that as opposed to your secure employment with the news company, you are liable to lose out here in the end?

"Of course I may lose. I'm going to contend. It's an economic risk, too, and it's clear to me I won't be able to return to the news company. Certainly not right away. Yes, it's a risk, but there's such an exciting opportunity here for political and economic change, I want to be part of it."