An Israeli 'House of Cards': Natan Eshel or Ariel Sharon, Who Is Our Frank Underwood?

Jerusalem isn't too far behind the fictional Washington depicted in the U.S. political drama that seethes with Capitol Hill intrigues and power plays - albeit with a lot less style and a lot more flannel shirts.

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At first glance, the odyssey of revenge in which Democratic House Majority Whip Francis J. Underwood engages in on his way to the top of America's power pyramid has little in common with the quotidian conduct of Israel’s "gray" politicians. Power, style, dark passions: Underwood, the main character of "House of Cards" played by Kevin Spacey, is a heady blend of scheming and aggressiveness that probably does not have a real-life counterpart anywhere, at least in these doses, and certainly not in the Knesset. Nevertheless, some recent Israeli peccadillos could definitely serve as inspiration for the creators of the U.S. series, itself based on a BBC miniseries and Michael Dobbs novel by the same name.

The scandals surrounding the 2009 Harpaz affair, alleged dirty tricks aimed to affect the choice of Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and the recently surfaced letter, apparently forged, accusing Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar of inappropriate relations with a subordinate, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to politicians' aggressive attempts to bring down their rivals.

The Knesset is full of people who have schemed and maneuvered to increase their political power, from superannuated Palmach veterans, decorated generals and high-achieving "bulldozers," to third-rate political hacks.

While no Israeli politician is an obvious Frank Underwood understudy, there are a number who could give him a run for his twisted trickery.

Natan Eshel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former bureau chief, does not have a flashy lifestyle, eschewing designer suits for plaid flannel shirts and plain leather sandals, but he is highly sophisticated nonetheless: He has broken up and put together political parties and he has brought low and raised up the political fortunes of members of Netanyahu’s inner circle, all the while keeping close tabs on his media presence. A kosher cafe in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Yitzhak neighborhood and the cafeteria of Jerusalem's Israel Museum stand in for the barbecue joint where Underwood closes his deals.

Eshel's exploits are faithfully covered by news reporters. They included the split in the Labor Party and the formation of Atzmaut, may it rest in peace, in exchange for a number of tempting ministerial portfolios - a move that kept Eshel crony Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the cabinet.

Now Eshel is being credited with efforts to break up Labor's Knesset caucus, thus enabling Netanyahu to form a coalition without Habayit Hayehudi or Yesh Atid and possibly leaving open a back door through which Barak could once again sneak into the government.

Eshel was the driving force behind Kadima’s 11th-hour decision to join the government in May 2012, averting the dissolution of the Knesset and giving Netanyahu nine more months in power.

A few months ago, the veteran political commentator Nahum Barnea, writing in his regular column, repeated a claim by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, according to which Eshel regularly leaked goings-on in the Prime Minister's Office to Kuwait's Al Jarida newspaper, in order to "settle accounts" in the PMO. Eshel has denied the accusation.

A behind-the-scenes guy, Eshel is both an entrepreneur, taking the initiative, and a contractor, implementing the plans of others, and it is often hard to figure out his role in any given operation.

With all due respect to Eshel, it is former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who seems to resemble the fictional Underwood most closely. Sharon transformed himself from an object of revulsion into a lovable grandfather, from a much-maligned defense minister into a popular prime minister and from a criminal suspect into the leader of Israel's controversial disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

"Politics is like a wheel of fortune: Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down; the main thing is just hanging on," Sharon was once quoted as saying, in a line of text that could have been written for Underwood.

While in "House of Cards," principles are sacrificed on the altar of positions, justice-minister-apparent Tzipi Livni has built her career on the opposite approach, the rare politician who privileges principles above political advancement and who turned down the chance to be prime minister so as not to knuckle under to ultra-Orthodox extortion.

But in the past couple of months there has been a turnaround. While Livni might not admit it, her journey out of the political desert into Netanyahu’s coalition was also her personal vendetta against Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz. Like Underwood, Livni served up a cold dish of revenge, returning to the arena from which she was unceremoniously ejected by Mofaz and shattering Kadima in the process, while looking on at her rival’s political disintegration.

Livni has returned to the centers of power and has come to drink from the government's overflowing wells. But she has renounced many of her principles in exchange for a seat in the cabinet of Netanyahu, whose character and positions she scorned utterly just a few months ago.

Kevin Spacey as U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood in a scene from the Netflix original series, 'House of Cards.'Credit: Netflix / AP
Natan Eshel. Credit: Nir Keidar
Former Prime Minister Ariel SharonCredit: GPO