April 1, 1979 fell on the Sunday after Israel’s historic second consecutive Eurovision Song Contest victory. Shimon Shiffer, who was then a diplomatic correspondent for Israel Radio, had been touting a report from the morning hours that the Israeli government was going to declare “Hallelujah,” the song performed by Gali Atari and Milk and Honey that had given Israel its second Eurovision title, as the country’s new national anthem in place of “Hatikvah” that day. It was the perfect Fake News; no one doubted the item’s veracity. When Prime Minister Menachem Begin himself announced at a cabinet meeting that he had no idea what the report was talking about, they took the April Fool’s joke off the air.
A few days before the practical joke, March 26 – 40 years ago on Tuesday – Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt. It was a Monday, and the rest of the world reported with amazement Israel's atmosphere of euphoria while the country was making its final preparations for the song contest that Saturday in Jerusalem. There was a sense that the stirring song and its lyrics – “Hallelujah for what has been and what has yet to be” – precisely captured the national mood. No song or country could take a home team victory at the Israel Convention Center (then known as Binyanei Hauma) that weekend.
A year earlier, Israel had been surprised when “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” the disco hit by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsch about children who sing in a Hebrew Pig Latin, won in Paris and brought Eurovision to Jerusalem. Izhar Cohen outdid romantic ballads from Belgium and France, as well as the disco hit by Luxembourg’s popular duo Baccara.
In 1979, we felt like we deserved it, but it was no picnic. That year produced a strong crop of hits that are still beloved today: “Dschinghis Khan,” “Sokrati” and “Disco Tango.” Surprisingly, Spain’s Betty Missiego and her child backup singers vied for first place with “Su Cancion” (“Your Song”), as the two songs pulled ahead of each other in one of the most riveting votes to date. “Su Cancion” was still leading when Spain cast the final vote. Unable to vote for its own song, it gave Israel 10 points and the victory, leaving the Spanish entry in second place.
Much has been told about the evolution of "Hallelujah," the song that the band Hakol Over Habibi and the singer Yardena Arazi turned down as one unworthy of a contest. After the rejection, Kobi Oshrat put together Milk and Honey, replete with suspenders, along with Atari. Oshrat, who composed the song, believed in it more than any other song that he and lyricist Shimrit Orr had written. Atari with Milk and Honey performed wonderfully, looked wonderful and the karma was wonderful – perhaps they got some help from the word's origin in prayer.
“Hallelujah” is still considered the most successful Israeli song in history, in terms of sales, the number of plays, performances and cover versions (over 200). In the annals of Eurovision, it is second only to “Waterloo,” which introduced Abba to the world. Since then, it has regularly made the country’s hit parades, is played in practically every national and government event, and we chose it to end the 1999 competition in a performance by all the country’s representatives.
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But repeating that success wasn’t easy. The band and Gali Atari, an already well-known singer in the country, who had insisted from the get-go to be called Gali Atari with Milk and Honey, had a few songs together. They only had one serious hit abroad, “Goodbye New York.” Less than a year after “Hallelujah’s” victory, Atari felt that the project was getting in the way of her solo career, and the group fell apart. Why? It depends on whose side you take in the fairly ugly trial that followed. Leah Lupatin replaced her and led the group for a few more years, but the public affair resulted in a loud, years-long financial dispute. Success has many fathers, among them producer Shlomo Zach and his partners. They sued Oshrat, Atari sued everyone, and complications ensued. The story ended with mediation just a decade ago, 30 years after the Eurovision victory.
Meanwhile, Israel was unable to extend its successful run past “Hallelujah.” The huge government television and radio operation to cover the negotiations with Egypt, the Camp David Summit and the peace treaty signing ceremony left the broadcast authority coffers depleted. Inflation, which had begun to set in, forced the finance minister, Simha Erlich, to resign. He was actually generous and allowed the television crews into the Begin-Sadat craziness, acquiring expensive broadcast and color film equipment, which at that time was not available in the country. To everyone’s regret, he was replaced by Yigal Horowitz, who was known as “Yigal I have nothing” and for the phrase “Get off the roof, you crazies,” which he would say to anyone coming to him with monetary demands.
Israel regretfully declined to host the competition again, expecting to draw a fine from the European Broadcast Union. Luckily, the Netherlands came to the rescue to host the 1980 competition in The Hague. “You owe them victory,” the late Ralph Inbar, who worked in the Netherlands and Israel and brokered the deal with the Dutch, joked at the time. Now, if the Dutch song “Arcade,” which is leading the polls, does indeed win the Eurovision finale in two months in Tel Aviv, it would be poetic justice.