In the spring of 2007, Eldad Yaniv arrived in Vienna. A taxi took the elegantly attired attorney − at the time Ehud Barak’s campaign chief in the race for leadership of the Labor Party − to the city’s prestigious Innere Stadt district. He entered a handsome stone building and took the elevator to the luxurious home of the tycoon Martin Schlaff. A close friend of leading figures in the Israeli political echelon, Schlaff was suspected of having paid millions in bribes to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A courteous and generous host, Schlaff invited Yaniv to have lunch with him. The meal was prepared by a private chef and Schlaff used a slicer to serve his guest wafers of fine meat, while plying him with vintage wine.
“There had been a years-long dispute between Martin Schlaff and Ehud Barak,” Yaniv says, revealing for the first time the circumstances of his Vienna meeting. “Schlaff claimed he had donated $500,000 to Barak for the second round of elections for prime minister in 1999 and, because there was no second round, he wanted to know what had been done with his money.
“I first heard this story when Ehud Barak ran against Ami Ayalon, and information reached us that Schlaff was going to stir up a storm that would be harmful to Barak. I went to meet with Martin in order to explain to him how important it was for Barak to be defense minister after the Second Lebanon War.”
Did Barak know of your mission?
Yaniv: “Of course, I went there to solve that problem. Certainly. It was a problem between Barak and Schlaff – not my problem. And then I go into the meeting, which lasted a few hours, and I discover that I am not the first one who explained to Martin Schlaff how important it is that Ehud Barak be defense minister after the war and rehabilitate the army. I discover that [then-Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert had already spoken to him before me and explained the same thing.”
Schlaff told you that?
And in his conversation with you, Schlaff was angry at Barak?
“Obviously. His anger was very clear and very simple: ‘I gave half a million dollars to the second-round campaign. There never was a second round. No one returned my money and no one ever told me what was done with it.’ But I didn’t care about his money. The only thing I cared about was Ehud Barak’s campaign against Ami Ayalon.”
How do you view that mission, looking back on it today?
“When victory is the be-all and end-all, you don’t see with the eyes and you switch off the heart. You don’t even have to switch off the conscience, because it’s been in your sock for a long time. When there is nothing more important than winning, you have no red lines and no black lines and no gray lines. And I crossed them all.”
Do you see Barak as corrupt?
“I think power and money corrupt every person. When Barak retired from the army he was scornful of politicians who were drawn to money and sheltered under the wing of businessmen and tycoons, and he always laughed at Arik Sharon, who received his ranch from [businessman] Meshulam Riklis. It turns out that, when you get to those same places, you first view them with scorn and afterward become just like them. And in many senses, I became like them. I too was an actor who enjoyed himself in that horrible play.”
The three power centers
Yaniv recently read about the amazing story of American mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (whose exploits are depicted in a documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” and a feature film, “Casino Jack,” starring Kevin Spacey). At a very young age Abramoff became a major player in America’s power games. He had extensive ties with tycoons and Republican congressmen. He was an uninhibited wheeler-dealer who did everything for his rich clients, specialized in mudslinging and preached the total annihilation of his adversaries. On his way to conquering the target, the adroit middleman greased the hands of politicians, who foisted expensive gifts and luxury vacations on him.
Abramoff was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, after which he became a powerful voice decrying corruption among politicians and the ruinous ties between big capital and government. “When there is no boundary between the permissible and the forbidden, you race ahead. And if I had not stopped where I did, I would easily have reached the same place Abramoff did,” Yaniv says. “I think that in the very near future, people will be put into prison for [the kind of] things I did. The things I did will be considered crimes − terrible, destructive things. For many years I was in the heart of darkness. There is no other way to describe it.”
Yaniv, 44, was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in Holon and Rishon Letzion. He is married and the father of three children. He did his military service on the staff of the army’s weekly magazine Bamahane, and a few years later was the weekly’s editor and a writer for the chain of local newspapers published by the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth. The soldiers who served under Yaniv at Bamahane (full disclosure: I was one of them for a year) developed an ambivalent attitude toward him. Some were enthralled by his charisma, imitated his way of speaking and saw him as a role model. Others were put off by his brutal tactics. In 1995 he joined the law firm of Dov Weissglas as an intern, and within a short time became the ultimate favorite of the well-connected head of the firm. It was in the office on Lilienblum Street, in Tel Aviv, that he first met some of the major figures in Israel’s corridors of power. For example, client No. 1: Ariel Sharon.
“For the first time, like in an MRI, I was exposed to the mechanisms of power in Israel, to the way the State of Israel works,” Yaniv relates. “The country is run by a group of people whom no one appointed and no one elected: Lawyers, media advisers, lobbyists, businessmen, politicians all mixed together in one cocktail.
“Within a very short time I met Ehud Barak,” he continues. “Once when he came to see Dubi [Dov Weissglas] to get legal advice about an investigative report Yedioth Ahronoth had published on the Tze’elim affair [a 1992 training exercise accident at the Tze’elim base in the Negev in which Barak was accused of abandoning wounded soldiers], and a second time when his daughter started to intern in the firm.”
The daughter, Michal Barak, became friends with Yaniv and paired the ambitious lawyer with her father. In 1999, Yaniv became part of the team that ran Barak’s election campaign. As prime minister, Barak made Yaniv one of his advisers and afterward his personal chief of staff. “After Barak lost the election of 2001 I said, ‘Look, the whole drama I saw in the past few years can be converted into a start-up, into big money,’” Yaniv says, recalling his first steps down the slippery slope. “The idea is to interconnect the three power centers: big capital, government and media. If you know how to finagle, how to juggle the three corners of the hat and how to whirl across that floor like a dance star, you are the king of the world. That’s what I told myself. And I went ahead and established a law firm that quickly grew to gigantic dimensions.”
What did you see in the Prime Minister’s Office that led you to this insight?
“That a very, very small group of people, who were always in a different corner of the room, in another role, were running everything, were in control of all the natural resources: the power, the money, the influence. They were actually running the country. Getting close to that group is like owning a gold mine.”
Yaniv opened a small law office on Ahad Ha’am Street, in Tel Aviv, in 2001. Within a few years he leaped ahead like a kangaroo on speed, landing in a magnificent three-story Templer building, decorated with original artwork, on fashionable Montefiore Street in the center of Tel Aviv. He put a great deal of energy into putting on a splendid show, collecting a glittering list of clients: magnates such as Benny Steinmetz, the Ofer brothers, Mikhail Chernoy and David Appel; politicians such as Barak, Avigdor Lieberman, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Avraham Hirchson, Shalom Simhon, Dalia Itzik, and many others. Yaniv was also the legal adviser to the Labor Party, a job he got during the Ben-Eliezer era, when Ben-Eliezer defeated Avraham Burg for the party leadership in late 2001.
Yaniv’s involvement with Ben-Eliezer illustrates how he was able to corral more and more clients. Ben-Eliezer’s loyalists made Yaniv the legal adviser in various government companies, such as Israel Military Industries and the Israel Local Authorities Data Processing Center. Subsequently, Yaniv became a fixture in other political courts too, with the businessmen or political functionaries who were confidants of the ministers he represented hiring his special services time and again. Leveraging his connections, he augmented his client base. His exploits in those years would merit a separate article.
How did your political connections affect the growth of your client base?
“It’s the buddy system. And my buddies were politicians. You know, when you are a buddy of politicians you are also a buddy of the businessmen who are by the politicians’ side, and if you are a buddy of businessmen and of their spokesmen and their legal advisers and their lawyers, you are part of the Cosa Nostra. During the day you see a client with a problem, and in the evening you see a politician who can solve that problem, and does solve it, because he doesn’t care about the problems of the citizens, only about solving his buddy’s problem.
“I was constantly dazzled by the power, the authority, the world in which you are with politicians in the morning, then an hour later with businessmen, and they always have regulatory problems, always problems with the government, and you always go on their behalf to the minister, who is actually a client of yours. There is big capital and there is government, and someone has to be the converter, someone has to connect between them. I was the connecting cable.”
Can you confirm that many politicians don’t really pay the lawyers who represent them?
“What’s to confirm? I find it perfectly self-evident, and quite amusing, that lawyers don’t take fees from politicians. And if they do, it’s only for the sake of appearances. I think that’s a fact. Let anyone who says differently deal with his conscience. There is an oligarchy here, and if you want to enter the courtyard of the oligarchy, you provide those services for free.”
In this period, Yaniv’s image among politicians and in the newspapers − an image he cultivated − was of a vicious snake, a master of stratagems and schemes who did not hesitate to lie when needed; who willingly wallowed in the mire for his powerful, well-known clients; who slammed the door on his adversaries’ fingers; who insisted that the linkage between big capital and government was an invention of the press and that, in any event, it was a positive connection, like that “between a lightbulb and electricity.”
Speaking at the time, one of Yaniv’s critics told journalist Michal Karpa: “He is a sword for hire − a very sharp, dangerous sword that kills. He will not hesitate to plunge his hands into puddles of shit.” He was a lawyer who rarely appeared in court, whose primary expertise lay in maintaining golden relations with the powerful; engineering media manipulations; conducting violent campaigns; filing huge lawsuits and obtaining injunctions against investigative reports that sought to expose political corruption of the high and the mighty (Hirchson and others); or submitting threatening suits to gag employees who blew the whistle on strong managements.
“As I see it, I played no small part in the corruption of Israeli politics, in the public’s loss of faith in politics,” he says now, frankly. “I loved the power and the money, the influence and the good times. And I was one of those who drank the whole cocktail.”
Where was your conscience back then? If you leave five victims in the dust, don’t you go home that day with guilt feelings?
“I would go home depressed on a day I left four victims in the dust and didn’t manage to fell the fifth one.”
How many times a day did you lie in that period?
“I don’t know how many times I spoke the truth.”
Did you have no inhibitions, show no judiciousness?
“You are not judicious. Judiciousness is your ability to choose between bad and good, your ability to weigh your human weaknesses and consider the general good. But when you are part of a group like that, there is no dividing line between your personal good and the general good. Who will tell you that it’s bad? Everyone around you says it’s good, because they want to do exactly the same thing.”
Yaniv put on weight during these years, stuffed himself into suits and ties even in the blazing heat of August, wore fancy watches and collected expensive pens − and added more clients to his expanding business. I observed his meteoric rise with astonishment and concern. It was a leap, I believed, that attested to the general decline of us all.
You seemed to be dazzled by power and money.
“I was greedy. I don’t know if I loved money − today I find it a bit hard to understand what there is to love about it. But when you are part of the upper ‘pigcentile,’ you are one of the pigs in the pen.”
What does that mean? That you need a luxury car? The most gorgeous house? The most beautiful watch? The most appropriate attire?
“It means that everything has to be the most expensive and the most plentiful. After you buy the most expensive watch, the next day you buy another watch that’s even more expensive.”
Because a new model came out?
“Because you are a junkie. Today I look back on all of that with utter astonishment. There are these short shirts with the huge ponies and the crocodiles. Today they look to me like the ugliest thing in the world, but that’s what I wore. A few months ago I organized my clothes closet and found a whole stable of Ralph Lauren Pony shirts, and jeans too. And you ask, ‘Who is the psycho who bought that stuff?’ I am the psycho.”
Roots of the transformation
In 2007, Yaniv skillfully guided Barak back to the leadership of the Labor Party. In the months leading up to the victory, Yaniv acted like a kind of local Dennis Ross, bringing about a reconciliation between Barak and the many party figures who were disappointed in him from the previous round, including Uzi Baram, Shimon Sheves, Avraham Burg and others. He was behind Barak’s strategy of maintaining media silence and he scurried among politicians and journalists to tell them with passion that the candidate had changed, had learned the lessons, had learned to listen.
Barak was elected party leader, joined the Olmert government as defense minister and appointed Yaniv as the Labor Party’s chief of staff. Yaniv thus moved up another notch. Now he not only represented the rich and the politicians, gave journalists the daily spins and increased the profits of his law office; now he was also the closest confidant of the defense minister. There were some who viewed Yaniv’s rise to the top as little short of harrowing.
However, within a few months, the ever-suspicious Barak fired Yaniv after a stormy nighttime argument in the defense minister’s office. “I was in his office, we talked,” Yaniv relates. “The conversation quickly became heated, there was shouting and screaming. At some point I told him, ‘We’ll continue the conversation tomorrow,’ and went home. He caught me as I was leaving and, lowering his eyes − contrary to his image, he never looks in the white of people’s eyes at such moments − ‘Before you go, I want to coordinate something with you.’ I replied, ‘Don’t coordinate anything with me. After you behaved the way you did, we will continue the conversation tomorrow.’”
Yaniv got home around midnight and was sitting on the roof of his house, taking in the air, when his wife came running up. “She said, ‘You don’t get it. Channel 2 just opened the midnight newscast with a report that the defense minister fired you.’ I was simultaneously humiliated and stunned,” Yaniv says, recalling the moment when the most significant political figure in his life turned his back on him. “Without any reason, I took the heaviest blow of my life. Today I know that without intending it, he woke me up. I told you earlier that on the track I was on before, doing what I did, the day will come when people like that will be put in prison. And when I say people like that, I am talking about myself. Just imagine where I would have got to if Barak had become the most powerful person in the country, the prime minister.”
Can you be more specific about how Barak saved you from yourself?
“At first I felt a stinging insult, the awful ingratitude on his part, and the most humiliated I had ever been in my life. After you take a blow like that, a fist that smashes into the heart, you ask questions. First of all, you ask yourself, what just happened here?
“I went into therapy very late, regrettably, because today I understand that I badly needed it earlier. You start to understand what drives you in life, how your heart is in the wrong place, how you are a partner to, and the initiator of, terrible, cynical decisions. I understood what I had fomented in those past few years. I understood that I had done to dozens of people what Barak did to me, with the same cruelty, the same cynicism, the same ingratitude, with the same feeling of ‘I’m the king of the castle.’
“The truth is, I got exactly what I deserved. As though someone above was guiding things and had said, ‘This time we will let Eldad Yaniv experience what he does to others,’ with the same despicability of upending someone and turning his heart into dust.”
Are you angry at Barak?
“No. I wish I could see him. At first I thought that if I were to see him on the street I would pick up a stone and throw it at his head. But if we happen to run into each other now, I hope my body will allow me to do what I am planning. He will get a big hug, because without intending to, he saved my life.”
Did you do dirty tricks for Barak?
“Look, when you think the most important thing is power and authority and for you to be in the right place, then nothing else has meaning − not political rivals and not political friends in the party. Anything goes and everything is appropriate. When Barak was questioned about the associations [referring to allegedly illegal campaign contributions of vast amounts], we − the people who worked with him − were busy showing how Dan Meridor, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Roni Milo had committed exactly the same offenses in the [short-lived] Center Party.
“Whenever I saw Shahak I would try to shake his hand, talk to him, but he would always snort with contempt. A few months ago I heard he was sick and I told myself I had to ask his forgiveness, but he didn’t want to see me. I asked someone to speak to him, and that person finally said to me, ‘Okay, come with me. We will go to his office and at most he will throw you out.’ I went into his office and he got up with the cane, and I said to him, ‘I have only come to ask for your forgiveness,’ and I told him everything we did.”
Persistent mudslinging meant to create a false equivalence between what happened in the Center Party and what you fomented in Barak’s campaign?
“To forge a notion of equivalence in which everyone is a thief and everyone is corrupt. But in a political culture that understands what the general good is and what your personal good is, you don’t do things like that. You understand that if you have to provide explanations for what you did, you cope with it alone. You don’t drag others into the same pit with you, certainly not worthy people. You know, these are people who were then ministers in the government headed by Barak!
“I have no one to complain to but myself, because you cannot blame the one who sends you. You always have to blame the person who colludes in the mission, and I was one of those who did just that, and with great enthusiasm. It’s a serious thing. It’s no simple thing when a civil servant, a public official in a democracy, colludes with a group of people against cabinet ministers with the aim of making them the subjects of an investigation.
“I sat with Shahak for half an hour and told him everything I had done. I said, ‘Look, I don’t know if you are angry about this or you will forgive me, and I don’t really care. I just want to ask your forgiveness.’ I don’t know whether he forgave me, but that is less important to me.”
Shahak confirmed this account.
Yaniv also asked for forgiveness from Labor MK Amir Peretz. In 2005, when Peretz ran for the Labor Party leadership, Yaniv − who was the party’s legal adviser − conducted a strident campaign against him. He claimed that Peretz had organized an illegal drive to bring new members into the party on a wholesale basis in order to ensure his victory. “I did Peretz harm, which I had no right to do,” he says. He met with Peretz to ask for his forgiveness. “Ehud’s comeback campaign was no cleaner than Peretz’s new-members drive. And for that I had to ask him to forgive me.”
Peretz confirmed that the meeting had taken place.
A trail of smoke
Toward the end of 1998, while employed in Weissglas’ firm, Yaniv met Avigdor Lieberman, the outgoing director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. Over the years, Lieberman − who was then taking a break from politics to pursue globe-spanning business projects − became friends with the young lawyer. A few years ago, Yaniv was among those who drew up a legal opinion that sought to pave the way for the appointment of Lieberman, who is suspected of criminal activities, as public security minister in the Olmert government. Even earlier, when Lieberman was transportation minister in the Sharon government, Yaniv was appointed by Lieberman’s confidant Alex Wiznitzer (and other confidants) as one of the legal advisers to the Public Works Department (now called the Israel National Roads Company).
Lieberman is an enigmatic figure. Can you dispel the fog and explain what makes him tick?
“In my opinion, he is motivated by an urge for power, authority, money and influence − by everything apart from public service. The question is not how someone like me and Lieberman are connected. That is almost self-evident. He is exactly like what I used to be.”
What do you mean by “what I used to be”? A total cynic?
“A total cynic who doesn’t understand that in certain areas you are playing with dangerous materials and it’s no game. It might sound like a joke to incite against Israel’s Arabs just because [American media adviser] Arthur J. Finkelstein tells you it’s a good idea. And when you do it, you are effectively saying, ‘Nothing will stand between me and reaching the top of the pyramid,’ and you leave behind you a trail of smoke, as I did.”
Yaniv reveals here for the first time that he took an active part in the shadow campaign against Lieberman’s longtime bitter rival, Moshe Mizrahi, the former head of the Israel Police investigations department. A few years ago, Mizrahi, who was the chief investigator in the cases of Gregory Lerner, Lieberman, Ofer Nimrodi and the Sharon family, found himself in a battle of survival against a well-orchestrated offensive that demanded his head. In the background was a covert police investigation against Lieberman.
At the end of the 1990s, while Lieberman was occupied with his international business affairs, the police international investigations unit launched a covert investigation against him, in part because he was suspected of having ties with Russian organized crime. At the beginning of 2002, it transpired that a mole had operated in Mizrahi’s department during the investigation. Before he retired, the mole − a junior police officer named Stanislaw Yazemski − took all the transcripts made of the wiretaps of Lieberman, David Appel, the oligarch Mikhail Chernoy and others and absconded to Canada.
A few of the transcripts he stole were published in the press, after careful selection. The publication of the abridged transcripts caused a furor. Mizrahi asked then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein to look into the allegations against him. The affair generated a rift of unprecedented proportions in the general prosecution. At the conclusion of the investigation, Rubinstein favored Mizrahi’s removal, even though he found that Mizrahi had acted in good faith and that there was not enough evidence to place him on criminal or disciplinary trial. State Prosecutor Edna Arbel was vehemently against Mizrahi’s removal. She did not think he had done anything improper and said that dismissing him would be a prize for offenders and suspects.
As the pitched battle raged within the Justice Ministry, Mizrahi’s foes in the media and the Knesset waged a war for his dismissal, a battle in which Yaniv was one of the lieutenants. “I was the legal adviser to the Labor Party at the time,” he says, “and I tell you that I found myself in the office of then-MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who was the chairman of the Knesset’s House Committee, explaining to him why a commission of inquiry had to be established in order to bring about Mizrahi’s ouster from the police. Beforehand, I was asked by more than three or four Labor Party politicians to go that route. If Ophir wasn’t a friend of mine or didn’t hold me in high regard, he would have kicked me out with blows. So he only kicked me out with shouts.
“I don’t know how effective it was, but I gave 100 percent of myself toward Mizrahi’s fall. I went to Pines-Paz and I hung out with journalists and briefed them and helped them to get a handle on the situation, and I encouraged publicity.”
Why did you do that?
“Because it was self-evident. My friends wanted help. And you know, I look back on it today and I say that it was one of the most shameful things I did. There is nothing more just than for Mizrahi to be a minister in the next government, while Lieberman and a few Laborites who wanted his head remain outside. That would be poetic justice.”
In 2009, Yaniv and the playwright Shmuel Hasfari wrote a manifesto titled “The National Left.” The provocative document ridiculed the old-time, “white” and sated Israeli left, which loves the good life, patronizes the Palestinians and the Mizrahim − Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin − has become addicted to the facade of a struggle for peace, and has forsaken all other values, particularly solidarity. In their resounding text, Hasfari and Yaniv battered politicians, settlers, “hilltop criminals” (referring to anarchic young settlers), the “malignant” occupation and draft evaders.
The document brought Yaniv invitations to speak to various groups. He started to travel around the country. “I was living a totally schizophrenic life,” he says about the period in which he spoke to hundreds of people in halls and in parlor meetings. “In the morning I worked as a whore of tycoons. Then I madly rushed home, always at the last minute, tongue hanging out, put on my proletarian garb and traveled up and down the country to speak. Gradually I realized I was actually getting the most meaningful lesson of my life, because I was living the falsest life there could be − a life in which I explained certain things in the afternoon but in the morning did the exact opposite, and to extremes. In the morning I could be sitting in the office of someone who makes money by making people miserable, and in the evening I would preach morality.”
Immediately after the Mount Carmel fire disaster in December 2010, Yaniv was invited to a conference in Be’er Sheva together with a retired senior police officer, Haim Klein, whose daughter-in-law lost her life in the blaze. The two were standing in a corner of the hall when suddenly someone came up to Klein, introduced himself and shook his hand. “He said to Klein, ‘My name is Jackie Edry, you are a hero,’ and gave him a hug. Haim said, ‘Do you know Eldad Yaniv?’ And I stick my hand out to this person, and it dangles in the air. I say, ‘What’s the story?’ And he turns around sharply and walks away.
“Haim asks me, ‘What’s with you and that guy?’ I told him I had no idea, I had never seen him in my life and had no idea who he was. Klein said, ‘It’s Jackie Edry, a social activist from Dimona.’ But I didn’t know Jackie Edry, I’d never heard of him. Who was he? Good God, what did I have to do with someone from Dimona? What had I done to him?”
Yaniv quickly found out that Edry had waged a courageous open fight against the employment of workers from manpower companies by Israel Chemicals, a conglomerate owned by the Ofer brothers. And he, Yaniv, was one of the mercenaries who had been hired at the time to fight Edry and send him vicious letters aimed at shutting him up. “I threatened him in a lawyer’s robe, and I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know what he looked like, what his name was, what he did for a living. I didn’t care.”
Yaniv relates that in his remarks to the hundreds of students at the meeting in Be’er Sheva, he asked Edry to forgive him and embraced him warmly. “Those who know how to juggle things with a list of less than 100 people who are at the top, also get to the top, but destroy the country on the way up. I was one of those who took a person like Jackie Edry, whose contribution to the country is 10 times as great as mine, if not more, a social activist who changed the future of thousands of people in Israel thanks to his heroic struggles − but for money, and under the auspices of the law, without any wrongdoing, you can take a person like that and grind him into dust. And I was one of those who did just that, who provided these services to others. And with those services they climbed even higher.”
Looking back, how many cases like Edry were there?
“Plenty. I’m sure that whoever hears the story of Jackie Edry is saying, ‘There are others, too. I was one of them, he did it to me, too, hurt me in the same way.’ If someone comes up to me in the street, or says I did it to him, I will do exactly what I did with Jackie Edry: I will ask forgiveness and not expect to be forgiven.”
Edry confirms the details. “He apologized with a great deal of courage after almost wanting to kill me when the Ofer brothers targeted me. We can expect a wave of remorse from people like Yaniv, who understand today what they did to the Israeli society in the past decade.”
Not the same person
Yaniv’s old way of life was abruptly halted by his wife, Lior Yaniv, a poet and an associate editor of Lady Globes, a monthly magazine published by the economic newspaper Globes. It was she who jolted him and made him see the depths to which he had sunk.
“When you try to make a tikkun [repair] in your life, there is no one formative moment when it happens. It’s a process with all kinds of catalysts, but if I had to cite one episode in which I grasped that either I continue living my life as I had been doing for the past 10 years or make a U-turn, it was at Sukkot a year and a half ago,” he recalls. “We decided to holiday in Rhodes − me, Lior and the kids. I organized everything. We landed in Rhodes and went to the hotel.
“We get to the hotel, go up to the room, I open the door and Lior and the children enter. Then I hear the kids shouting, ‘Wow, look at the size of it! Look how many rooms there are, how many bathrooms, look at all the TVs, look how many,’ etc. But I didn’t hear Lior. And then she bursts out at me − not with shouts, because Lior is not a person who shouts − she says something like, ‘Is this what’s become of you? You really stink, you are not the person I fell in love with.’
“I was shocked. I asked myself, ‘How could it be that I bring my family for a weekend in the most luxurious suite in Rhodes, the suite where all the heavy gamblers stay, in a casino hotel, a suite that costs probably 2,000 euro a night [the hotel belongs to one of Yaniv’s clients], with a balcony that overlooks the whole bay of Rhodes?’ It was the most awful holiday I ever had.” During the holiday he flew to a few work-related meetings, “and when I get back, the quarrel becomes even more intense and keeps getting hotter: ‘Why did I imprison them in this filthy place, what a shit I’d become, how I stank, how did I dare go off in the middle of the vacation, where had I gone?’ I answer her, ‘What do you mean, “where am I going?” Do you think we can pay for vacations like this?’ And she says, ‘Who needs these vacations and who needs this money? If you don’t go back to what you were, we will no longer be together. You are not the person I knew.’ I am telling this calmly now, but at the time it was like an earthquake, with everything exploding and flying every which way.”
Yaniv spent weeks last summer in tents on Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv, with members of the National Left, the political movement he helped found.
Why did the protest movement die?
“I think the protest is more alive than ever. It is also more alive than it was last summer. You know, it’s no big deal to sit in tents on Rothschild when you’re constantly in the media and in the headlines. But Israel is a democratic country. People took to the streets exactly when they needed to take to the streets, exactly when they were able to foment change. And whoever thinks [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will be the next prime minister is hallucinating.”
You’re the one who’s hallucinating. It’s almost a sure thing he will be reelected, that’s the consensus.
“Who cares if it’s the biggest consensus? So what? Does that make it right? Everyone who is now saying ‘Bibi is the next prime minister’ said before last July 14 that Israelis don’t go into the streets, they are always attached to their armchairs, nothing interests them, nothing moves them. That was the consensus.
“I think the next election campaign will be the embodiment of the mother of all protests. People will be in the streets. People will be on every street corner in the country. There will be new parties, new forms of organizing and new blood that will be infused into Israeli politics, and I think that for the first time in decades there will be lines at the polling stations everywhere in the country. That will be the peak of the stormiest election campaign in Israel’s history.”
Who will all these people be voting for?
“For all the people around you whom you haven’t yet noticed. People who generate inspiration in their private life and their public life, who foment change in Israel, in education, in the third sector and in the towns in outlying areas. You don’t yet identify them as figures who sweep others in their wake, but that is exactly what will happen in the election campaign. A conflagration the size of the Akirov Towers [a luxury residence in Tel Aviv where Ehud Barak lived] will be lit, you can’t imagine the scale of the blaze.”
Could Yair Lapid − the popular television personality and journalist who recently announced his entry into politics − be the recipient of these waves of support?
“I do not support Yair Lapid and I will not vote for Yair Lapid, and I applaud wildly his entry into politics. I want to ask all those who are clicking their tongue and all those who are looking for his mistakes, ‘Really, now, isn’t he preferable to Yariv Levin? Isn’t he preferable to Zeev Elkin?’ [Two Likud MKs.] Isn’t he the kind of person we want in politics? Do we really not want the top people in their field to drop everything and come to foment change that will benefit us all? What do we want? A Knesset full of Fuads [referring to Labor MK Ben-Eliezer] or a Knesset filled with Yair Lapids? We want young, successful people, that’s what we want. We keep saying that we are sick of all this Fuadism that has taken over Israeli politics.”
Is this the same Fuad for whom you committed hara-kiri to ensure he would be head of the Labor Party?
“Hara-kiri is an understatement, right? That’s part of my biography, crowning Fuad, crowning Barak. Everything that arouses disgust today in Israel is my handiwork.”
Will the movement you cofounded run in the next elections? What is it trying to accomplish?
“We are a group of people, half and half men and women, half and half periphery and center, half and half religiously observant and secular, half and half Arabs and Jews, who are trying together to establish a new political party that will change Israel. Because in order to change Israel, you have to abandon the sectors, abandon the factionalism. Read Herzl’s utopian vision in ‘Altneuland,’ a old-new land. That is the Israeli ethos that needs to be revived, that is the Israeli ethos that needs to be formed. Whoever does not accept that ethos cannot be part of this party.”
A few months ago, the group he belongs to launched a website called “Nochiland,” which is devoted to a struggle against the tycoons, and one tycoon in particular − Nochi Dankner.
What do you have against Nochi Dankner? Why are you persecuting him?
“Nochi is a symbol. Nochi is not a private person. Someone who invites so many politicians, so many regulators, so many mayors, so many past and present ministers to his daughter’s wedding, cannot genuinely say, ‘I am a private person.’ When Gil Schweid [CEO of Check Point, a software technology firm] marries off his son, you will not see one mayor, one politician, one minister. You will not see at Check Point anyone who worked in the budgets branch of the Finance Ministry.
“Nochi Dankner knows the truth, which is that in no small measure he made his fortune because of his connection to politics and politicians. And because he is a symbol he gets criticized. I think that in the end he will understand that the only way to rebuff the criticism is to respond to it and internalize it, and understand it and correct things. It can’t be rebuffed either by buying a newspaper or by inviting politicians to a wedding. It’s inconceivable that he looks in the mirror and doesn’t ask himself, ‘How did I become the most hated person in Israel? How did I become the symbol of everything that is corrupt in Israel? I am not a criminal and I do not head a crime organization, so how did I get to be so hated?’ The way to fix that, is to fix it. Not to try to kill or smash the mirror in front of you. Smash the mirror, and another mirror will take its place.”
What does Eldad Yaniv see these days when he looks into the mirror? Is it possible to undergo such a jolting personality upheaval, to kill what you were and from it give birth to a new person?
Maybe this is just another one of your tricks, but this time better calculated and more heavily invested?
“I understand that people hear stories about people who change their life and they have this gnawing thought: Is it genuine? Isn’t it a trick? Is it more spin? I identify with those people. That is really the first question that gnaws at you, and it’s good that it gnaws and it has to keep gnawing. And the second part is to go on doing good deeds and persuade people by deeds and not by babble, that this is what I have decided to do with the rest of my life.”
What will you say to those whose response is, ‘he’s pulling the wool over our eyes again’?
“That no one should allow the wool to be pulled over his eyes, and anyone who feels that should keep turning the pages − that’s fine. It used to be very important for me to persuade everyone about what I was doing. I was a word machine and a talk machine. That is much less important for me today.”
How do your former friends react? With total distrust? Or with a kind of look that says, he has freaked out, he’s gone ape? Or he’s pulling the wool over our eyes?
“With the whole range of feelings you describe, I think. Many people think I have lost my mind. You know, when I meet them by chance I can always picture their finger making that circular ‘he’s batty’ motion at their forehead. And I can understand that, because when I was in their place that’s how I looked at those kinds of people.
“A lot of people don’t believe me, and they are precisely the people for whom I have the most empathy."
“I was at a meeting with Rani Rahav [a very well-connected lobbyist and PR man]. I brought with me someone that I really wanted Rani to put in touch with someone and try to help him. Someone who works with at-risk youth. Rani says to me, ‘Well, well, well, when is he coming back? When will he recover from the malignant disease that struck him? When is he coming back to us? When will he come back? It’s unbelievable − look at the rags he’s wearing.’
“So I understand that there are people on all sides, in the front and in the back, on the right and on the left, who look at me and say it’s not genuine. That’s fine. That’s a kind of mirror that has to be there so that I will never go back to being what I was. The tikkun is endless.”
How do you now view the character you played a few years ago? Didn’t you realize that some people thought very badly of you?
“I didn’t know. I didn’t know, because I hung out with people who admired what I was doing, who paid me a great deal of money for what I did, who stood in line so that I would do it for them too. And when I realized that I had gone infinitely far from what I once was, and infinitely far from what the people closest to me could put up with − today, when I look at it, I do not rewrite it, I do not tell tales about what I was, I do not say I was misunderstood.
“I was understood for being exactly as I was. Those who said what they said about me spoke the truth, because that is what I was. I don’t want to repress it, and I do want to dig into it, to look at it in the most trenchant, judgmental and even cruelest way. I pray that I will never go back there in my life. Because today I know that when I was there I was dead.”
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now