'There's A Fire Burning'

The connection between the two bearded gentlemen continued to grow. Sinai gradually became a part of the social milieu around Lieberman.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

It's 7 P.M. and Arik Sinai feels like he's in the right place. He walks around excitedly, admiring the sign-toting political activists, the flags, swept up by the big crowd pressing in on him, wanting to shake his hand.

"What power," he says in wonder, gazing around. In the background, Naomi Shemer's song "Anashim tovim" ("Good People") is playing. Amid all the Russian and the camera flashes, he stops for a moment. "It's important to me to be here," he says. "This is new, and I feel at home. Outside of music, I never felt so powerfully committed to anything. I'm proud to be here."

Nearly 1,000 activists came to mark the launch of Yisrael Beiteinu's election campaign last month in Katzrin in the Golan Heights. Sinai, one of Israel's biggest singers in the 1980s, was there, too. His musical career may have stalled, but the singer, who is divorced, has found a new love. Thus, a short time after he appeared briefly on the list of Tel Aviv's Anshei Ha'ir party, which disappeared even before the recent municipal elections, and five years after he released his last album, he is on stage once again. The political stage, this time.

In the early 1980s, Sinai sang classic Israeli hits with sweet melodies, like "Derekh hakurkar" ("The Gravel Road"), "Shuvi lapardes" ("Come Back to the Orchard") and "Ha'ayara sheli" ("My Town"). Now he is an avid supporter of Avigdor Lieberman's hawkish right-wing positions. "I'd like to invite to the 'presidential' table a new member of the party: Singer Arik Sinai!" proclaims the conference emcee, suddenly thrusting him into the spotlight. The audience responds with boisterous applause.

Sinai, silver-haired and sporting sparkly earrings, ascends the podium, followed by Uzi Landau, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon, Esterina Tartman (who, a few weeks later, would be knocked down to an unrealistic spot on the party list), Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Sofa Landver and the chairman himself.

Behind the long table covered with a blue tablecloth, Sinai appeared to be ablaze with political fervor. He'd been waiting for this moment for weeks. Now he sat there, applauding statements like, "We will not cede territory to an enemy that subsidizes Hezbollah," "Peace for territory will bring war," and "The Golan is our home." Then he got up to sing.

"Good evening, Katzrin," he addresses the party members in a gruff baritone, leaning on his black guitar. "I'm here because I, too, believe in Avigdor Lieberman. Instead of speaking, I'll sing you a song. See you all on election day on February 10."

The first encounter between Lieberman and Sinai, which led to the latter's inclusion in Yisrael Beiteinu's limited PR campaign, occurred by chance three years ago.

"I have friends who live in Caesarea," says Sinai. "Most of them are very wealthy. One evening, I was invited to dinner at the home of Nimrod Pe'er, who used to be the deputy CEO of Nokia. The invitation was really to meet with Avigdor Lieberman. I think that most of the people there, who were fairly regular visitors to his home, were quite surprised."

After the main course, it was time for dessert: a conversation with Lieberman. "He started speaking, I listened to him, and suddenly something happened to me," Sinai recounts with evident delight. "Avigdor talked about our path, about what he believes should be done regarding the Israeli Arabs. He talked about how internal security should be handled. Everyone there listened closely, in silence, and I found myself identifying with everything he said. I was very impressed by him. By his quickness, his sharp mind. He wowed me. He did something to me, he was just brilliant. The things he said made a leftist like me realize that I wasn't really where I thought I was politically. My views at the time were left-center, and they were still kept in the closet and not supposed to ever come out, because it's nice and warm in the closet and no one criticizes you."

A year and a half after that encounter, Sinai decided to contact Lieberman.

"I'd gotten together with a good friend of mine, an organizational consultant. We were sitting having coffee and she saw something on my face, something not very happy," Sinai admits. "My career wasn't at a peak, nor was my financial situation. She asked me if there was something else I'd like to do with my life. I didn't have a clear answer, but I told her that I was very interested in politics. This was a time when I would sit from 6 to 9 P.M. watching the political programs on television. She asked me: 'And what have you done about it?' And I said that I'd sent an e-mail to Yisrael Beiteinu asking to meet with Lieberman, but that I hadn't received any answer."

That day, Sinai's friend called Lieberman's personal assistant. Two days later, the singer went to Jerusalem, where he met Lieberman in the Knesset cafeteria.

"It was a little weird sitting there," Sinai recalls. "It was very exposed. People would come over all of a sudden and ask me, 'What are you doing here?' Avigdor asked me what I thought about his party. He was interested to know. He didn't ask why I'd come, what I wanted from him. He's a refined man, European, very civilized. I like that, too."

Afterward, the two went out for a smoke. "Avigdor likes cigars, and smoking is prohibited in the Knesset cafeteria so we moved to a smoking area. I told him there that I believe in his path, and that I want to help him in whatever way I can. We didn't come out with any specific decision. But we had nice chemistry, without either of us knowing what would happen later on."

Hebraizing the party

The connection between the two bearded gentlemen continued to grow. Sinai gradually became a part of the social milieu around Lieberman.

"It was clear to both of us that I wasn't motivated by any political whim. I wasn't after a seat, I didn't want to run for the Knesset like Sefi Rivlin or Tal Brody," Sinai says. "I wasn't out to conquer anything, that's not my way. I came to Avigdor because I believe in him and was prepared to carry out whatever task he gave me. Over the past six months, we've had 15 meetings. We've developed a friendship. Avigdor began inviting me to meetings with close friends of his, to lunches at the Kerem Maharal winery, for instance - cool places like that. Avigdor is the son of a vintner and only drinks good wine. I'm not a drinker, I don't think I'll become one either, but I tasted a bit. When the people around me had finished a bottle, I was still sipping.

"There was a real atmosphere of togetherness, it was incredible," he continues. "At first, I felt a little strange because there were people there I didn't know, like businessman Dedi Borovich from El Al and Yaron Miller from Flying Carpet [a travel agency]. I could feel that everyone there really loved Avigdor. That's what happens when you get to know him. He has something that we've kind of forgotten. He knows how to behave with friends. From one meeting to the next, we figured out just what he wanted me to do. It was obvious that I hadn't come to be a supporter from the side. That's not why I joined the party. I wasn't asking for a spot, but it was important to me to be doing something. Eventually, we decided that I would join the party's PR team."

Sinai already has a few specific goals in mind: "I want to Hebraize this party. I think that people like me, Landau and Ayalon can do it. Because, up until now, Lieberman didn't get his 11 Knesset seats from Israelis in North Tel Aviv. If, by standing beside him, I can make people understand that this is not just a party of Russians, then I've done my job. I feel my joining the party is casting Yisrael Beiteinu in a local light, after it was perceived as a party that's not so Israeli. I believe that it can definitely be this way. When I listen to Avigdor, who wasn't born here, his values and his love for the country just tear me apart."

Lieberman has made numerous racist statements about Arabs and Arab leaders. In 2006, he said "the fate of collaborators in the Knesset needs to be the same as the Nazi collaborators," referring to Arab MKs who were meeting with Hamas, because "at the end of World War II, not only the criminals, but also their collaborators, were sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials. I hope this will will be the fate of the collaborators in this house."

What do you have to say about this statement?

Sinai: "I support it. His intention is to hold a just trial, with all that means. I'm the son of Holocaust survivors, and I don't think that this cheapens the Holocaust. A Knesset member, one of the nation's 120 elected lawmakers, who commits a crime should stand trial for it. I accept that. I'm angry about Azmi Bishara. I can't make sense of it. How can this Bishara who ran off to Syria be receiving NIS 8,000 a month from the National Insurance Institute? Let him come back and stand trial. If he's acquitted, we'll cheer him on. I may be even more extreme than Avigdor on this. I think Bishara's citizenship should be revoked immediately, too."

After the riots in Acre, Lieberman said Israeli Arabs are more dangerous than Palestinians.

"If I'm here, then it means I believe that. I have no problem with Israeli Arabs and I have no problem eating hummus with them. They're fine just as long as they obey the law, just as we should. What happened in Acre was unacceptable. There's no reason for someone to drive his car with the music blasting into a neighborhood that's observing a fast. I also don't believe [the driver] when he says he did it by mistake. I say: If you're an Israeli citizen, then be like us - you have rights and you have obligations. What happened in Acre was rabble-rousing by the Arabs."

But Jews also went out and beat Arabs.

"No. I was reminded of the October 2000 pogroms in Umm al-Fahm. There are people who just don't see what's happening around us. And I'm not saying this out of any hatred for Arabs, not at all. These things upset Lieberman because he comes from a KGB-type regime where stuff like we saw in Acre wouldn't be permitted to happen. Avigdor doesn't hate Arabs, he just thinks that order needs to be instated. I think so, too. Order is what's needed."

Throughout his life, Sinai has been a leftist. "I was brought up on Mapai and the Alignment [forerunners of today's Labor party]," he says with a smile. "I was born and raised in the Haifa suburbs, in a Polish home, to parents who immigrated to Israel in 1948. My father worked at the electric company; my mother was a housewife. They were warm, simple people. As far back as I can remember, they always made sure the house was silent whenever [David] Ben-Gurion was speaking on the radio. They were loyal to him until the day they died, and I inherited their political zeal. Like them, I voted for Labor all my life. My mother died six years ago. Even when she was sick, she still went to the polls to vote, for Ben-Gurion's sake."

Lately, Sinai has been wondering how his mother would react to his political turnabout. "I don't think my mother would like it. I picture her watching over me now and saying, 'Listen, I'm not going to intervene in your decisions, just like I never intervened with your women - every time you found a different woman I suffered but I didn't intervene. But I think that this will hurt your music, and you love your music most.'"

In his North Tel Aviv neighborhood, Sinai has already been getting some mixed reactions: "Lately, instead of asking me about a new album, people are stopping me on the street and inquiring about my joining Lieberman. Some are stupefied by my rightward move, and I have close friends who despite all my explanations, think I've made a mistake. I think it has to do with the very powerful images attached to Avigdor, for no good reason. I, too, was scared of him when he was director general of the prime minister's office under [Benjamin] Netanyahu. But if you just listen to him, you see he's not that scary at all. I tell all these friends of mine to put their prejudices aside, to go to the party's Web site and to read the platform. They won't find any fascism or racism there. That's just not true. You have to get to know him."

Lieberman is suspected of accepting bribes from Russian-Israeli businessman Mikhail Chernoy and Austrian gambling tycoon Martin Schlaff. The company founded by his daughter has also come under suspicion. Millions of shekels in foreign money were transferred to this company. This doesn't bother you?

"I don't buy it one bit. This man is innocent of any crime. This is just nonsense. Avigdor did not steal or abuse. He has been targeted by suspicions since the moment he founded the party. It's an ongoing thing. All these suspicions have to do with his money for political activity. Even if I knew there were any truth to the suspicions, I'd still be in the same place. Right here."

What about his advocacy of "transfer"?

"Avigdor doesn't believe in transfer. I think that sometime around when he associated with Gandhi [the late minister Rehavam Ze'evi], some of Gandhi's views became associated with him, too. I wouldn't be with him for a moment if he supported transfer. Period. He talks about a territorial exchange. This idea of taking a person and moving him to a different place, removing him from his home, does not exist in Avigdor's lexicon."

He's not talking about removing people from their homes, but about transferring all of Umm al-Fahm to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for some of the settlements in the northern West Bank.

"So then the person and his land would move to another place - what's the problem with that? People need to decide where they want to be. If they want to live in Umm al-Fahm, under Israeli sovereignty, then they should go to the army and do all they need to do. Anyone who wants to be a citizen should stay, but we need to be clear about this."

The good, old Israel

At 10 P.M., after the crowd has left, Sinai and Lieberman hang around to chat a little, arms slung across each other's shoulders.

"For me, this is really coming full circle," says Lieberman, as the song "Ein li eretz aheret" ("I Have No Other Country") loops in the background. "I immigrated in 1978 and the first Hebrew song I heard in ulpan as a new immigrant was Arik Sinai's 'Ha'ayara sheli.' To me, having him on board is very important. To me he symbolizes the good, old Israel. Even though I don't have any feelings of inferiority, this shows me how the party is received by the public. When an artist like him is prepared to go out and openly identify with Yisrael Beiteinu's positions, I appreciate it very much. I know what it means, and so I really respect him for taking an unusual position. It certainly would have been easier for him to identify publicly with Meretz or Labor."

Sinai is a bit worried about how the public will react to his political shift and his new devotion to Lieberman. Singer Ariel Zilber's experience is something of a warning sign for him.

"I'm not going to say that Ariel Zilber took a radical step, because people could say that about me, too," Sinai says in a serious tone. "But Ariel did a lot of things at once. He became religious, denounced all sorts of aspects of society, like the gay public. He grew a wild beard. During the disengagement, he joined the group trying to hold on to Gush Katif when the law said that land had to be evacuated. He declared that Yigal Amir didn't kill [Yitzhak] Rabin. This is why people were upset. If all he'd done was adopt a certain political stance, I don't think people would have been so upset with him. The guy poisoned his surroundings and drew fire."

Sinai has no intention of following suit, though he knows that his alignment with Lieberman is perceived as very unexpected. "The most extreme place that it's okay for artists to go is Kadima. And I'm not only stepping out from the sidelines, but standing on stage with Lieberman. I know that because of my alliance with him I could lose some of my audience, that radio broadcasters won't play my songs. All the escape hatches were open to me. Avigdor wouldn't have said anything if I'd decided to keep my distance. But I decided to take this step, because there's a fire burning in this country. There are two possibilities: You can either run from the fire and save yourself, or go in and try to put it out."

Just before the hall closes, Sinai explains that he is traveling on two separate tracks: music and politics. "I've been on the musical track for 31 years. I've recorded 150 songs. On stage, I won't speak about politics. I have no intention of mixing the two. Which is why I think that even someone who lives on the most leftist kibbutz and loves my songs shouldn't be concerned with whom I support politically. Maybe I'm naive, but I'm at peace with the path I've chosen and I don't care what it costs me. I'm 58 now, what should I be scared of? That my songs won't be played? That I won't be invited to perform? From here I'm starting on three months of hard work until election day. It's a joy for me to fulfill what I believe in. I want to be part of this thing. It matters to me that it succeeds and that Avigdor Lieberman's party have as many Knesset seats as possible." W

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