A Puppet on a String

Sooner or later, all presidents of the State of Israel seem fated to become the butt of jokes, if they are not sad jokes themselves.

Sooner or later, all presidents of the State of Israel seem fated to become the butt of jokes, if they are not sad jokes themselves. In this department, President Moshe Katsav has broken all the records. The Katsav character that appears frequently on the satirical TV show "A Wonderful Country" has already transformed him into a bumbling idiot in the minds of Israeli viewers - a man who can barely read, write or do simple arithmetic, not to mention the fact that he is clueless about what is going on around him. Why isn't anyone protesting or staging a hunger strike outside the studio to stop this ridiculing of the president? The answer is that there seems to be a kind of national consensus that the president is not exactly - how shall we put it? - a great brain. "A Wonderful Country" is simply reflecting these sentiments in an exaggerated way. It is not inventing the character out of thin air.

But even if Katsav were a genius on a par with Albert Einstein (who was offered the presidency of Israel in its early years, but wisely turned it down), the country would somehow have set him up or found something wrong with him. Because you don't need to be a whiz at physics to see that the wheels of pseudo-Israeli democracy are chiefly oiled by boredom. Just as the dream of the Israeli housewife is to change the bathroom tiles every time she gets sick of the color, the people of Israel tire of seeing the same person sitting in office for too long. From that moment on, the fate of that person is in the hands of those who want to replace him with a new tile.

As for the details of the President Katsav "affair," the TV reports have been maddeningly vague and incomprehensible, or at least they were earlier in the week. Even today it is hard for the average Joe to put two and two together, and say what the president is guilty of. But if the president's fate has been sealed, television has somehow played a part in it, by digging old photos out of the archives and repeating the magic word "sexual harassment," or just "sexual," over and over. Automatically, everyone's ears prick up. Between us, it's not so much our sense of justice that has been awakened, but the very thought of the president in a situation in which the word "sexual" is involved. Think of the potential for laughs and dirty jokes (some dirtier than others), for helping to pass the time on a muggy midsummer night.

On the face of it, it seems only natural that Israelis crave a bit of entertainment to make up for all that flailing around in the sands of Gaza, which has become boringly repetitious. They need some respite from the unending business of the kidnapped soldier, and the dullness of the actors on the Israeli political stage. The Katsav affair, with all its vagueness, is like water in the desert. At the drop of a hat, we close our eyes and imagine Gila Katsav as the Israeli version of Hillary Clinton. Close them again and Katsav becomes a lusty Sephardic Don Giovanni with 1,003 lovers - shades of Mozart's famous aria.

Israel's unquenchable thirst for melodrama and a fresh supply of entertainment was evident in the broadcast on Tuesday about the visit of the president and his wife to the home of the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit in Mitzpeh Hila. The Shalit family, in the third week of the kidnapping, was getting boring from a journalistic point of view. From the start, the reporters had dubbed the Shalits "a withdrawn family" - i.e., one that doesn't deliver the theatrical goods the media are looking for. How could such a thing happen? No one tearing their hair out? No one berating the government? So along came the presidential visit to Mitzpeh Hila, infusing new life in a lackluster story.

Any sharp-eyed viewer could see that the coverage of the presidential visit to the Shalits was no longer about the kidnapped soldier. That was only the background story. The real focus of attention was Gila Katsav's displays of affection for her knight in shining armor, and his displays of affection for her. How firmly he grasped her arm. How tightly he held her hand as they stepped out of the helicopter, never letting go, like a little boy afraid that his mother might leave him, or take off somewhere, gone with the wind. Every once in a while, it's true, Gila leaned over with a loving smile and whispered some little nothings into his ear, but isn't that what a loyal wife is supposed to do in difficult times like these, when her husband is being accused of sexual harassment? Those are the rules of melodrama.

The whole thing did indeed look like a cheap melodrama acted out by a clumsy group of amateurs from the sticks. And that includes the panel of experts that Channel 2 trotted out this week to comment on the events and to predict how the Katsav affair might turn out. It also includes the performance of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, with that perpetually weary face of his. The Israel Police, a melodramatic institution in its own right, now has no choice but to start investigating - and those investigators had better find something, if they know what's good for them. On the other hand, what could they possibly turn up? It's enough if Katsav pulled someone's hair or tweaked a nipple 15 years ago.

The woman who says that Katsav fondled her breast poured out her sorrows to Maariv on Tuesday, filling two whole pages of the newspaper. Maariv's assistant editor, Avi Bettelheim, appeared that same evening on the Channel 10 talk show "London and Kirschenbaum," bursting with pride over this scoop. I was glad to see Yaron London being somewhat dismissive of Bettelheim's sudden transformation into being a knight of morality and ethical government. London was obviously remembering all the dirt that Maariv undertook to whitewash in the past with the same pious zeal that is now being employed to reach into the dark recesses of Katsav's psyche.

But the truth is, even if Katsav were as "upright and blameless in his generation" as Noah, he would not be able to divert the current flood. Every move the president makes or doesn't make, every word he writes, every dot and dash, every handshake, every blink of the eye will now be interpreted as a manifestation of sinister desires that have come to the surface. From now on, all the Amnon Abramovichs and taxi drivers in town will be his psychiatrists, explaining to us how, without anyone even noticing, the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, has become the perfect resource for the bored masses' eternal quest for material for jokes, and for Israeli TV, the mouthpiece of these stupidities.

Katsav should have known that he was a puppet on a string, crowned by the people so that one day, when they were sick and tired of all their other playthings, they could abuse him and poke his eyes out, and exclaim, with innocent surprise, about how, when they ripped his belly open, they never imagined there was only stuffing inside and not a drop of blood seeped out.