Fading Stars From the East

The Mizrahi decade, when Jews of Middle Eastern origin were sought-after members of political parties and rose to ministerial rank, is well and truly over. Or is it?

The recent headline in the daily Maariv, which attributed to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the offensive remark that Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is "a new version of David Levy," drew three reactions: It reminded readers that such a person once existed - David Levy; it gave off an unpleasant odor of racism, or maybe just plain arrogance, on the part of the "confidants"; and it shed light on an interesting phenomenon: The emptying from the top political ranks in Israel of leading politicians from the Mizrahi communities (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent).

Maybe it's a passing phenomenon, maybe a coincidence, maybe something deeper, but it's hard to ignore the following fact: the last decade, 1996-2006, was characterized by a leap forward of members of the Mizrahi communities. They occupied the most senior positions in the successive governments, they were considered the stuff of which prime ministers are made, they competed for the premiership, they were elected to the presidency, took control of ruling parties. That was unquestionably the "Mizrahi decade" in politics.

From 1996 to 1999, two senior Mizrahi ministers served in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu: defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai and foreign minister David Levy. In the government of Ehud Barak, between 1999 and 2001, Levy was foreign minister before being replaced, a year later, by Shlomo Ben-Ami. Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Barak, appointed two senior Mizrahi ministers to his first government, 2001-2003: Silvan Shalom as finance minister and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, then the chairman of the Labor Party, as defense minister.

The second Sharon government, 2003-2006, also had two ranking Mizrahi ministers: Shalom in the Foreign Ministry, Mofaz in the Defense Ministry. Only one Mizrahi minister served in the first year of the Olmert government - Amir Peretz, chairman of Labor, as defense minister - whereas in the new Olmert government, the three top posts are held by Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent): Tzipi Livni (foreign affairs), Roni Bar-On (treasury) and Barak (defense).

In the past few years, the Mizrahim have disappeared one after the other. Some left due to unpleasant reasons, moving to the locales covered by the crime and legal affairs correspondents. Only a small minority remained, but they lost their high rank and have had to make do with secondary posts, with the crumbs of power.

The latter group includes Mofaz, Ben-Eliezer, Amir Peretz and Meir Sheetrit. The first three are former defense ministers and two of them (Peretz and Ben-Eliezer) are former leaders of the Labor Party, who were removed after short terms. Overall, the Olmert government is the first since 1996 in which no Mizrahi holds one of the three top ministerial portfolios of foreign affairs, finance or defense.

The three major parties are led by Ashkenazim: Barak in Labor, Olmert in Kadima, Netanyahu in the Likud. None of them is threatened by a Mizrahi politician the way Peretz posed a threat to Shimon Peres, David Levy to Yitzhak Shamir and Silvan Shalom to Netanyahu. At present, after declining to run for chairman of the Likud, Shalom has been shunted into a corner where he is licking his wounds and awaiting a new opportunity, which will probably not come.

Sheetrit (who served for half a year as finance minister in the Netanyahu government) and Mofaz were downgraded, lost momentum and were passed by Livni and Bar-On. Both Sheetrit and Mofaz are weak in the polls, their popularity resembling Olmert's. They are not considered realistic candidates for the premiership.

Of the rapid rise and crushing downfall of Amir Peretz, what more can be said? The worst thing that happened to him was his victory over Peres for Labor leader in November 2005, just as the worst thing that happened to Moshe Katsav was his victory over Peres for president in July 2000. Each of them, in totally different circumstances, proved a disappointment. And how unsurprising it is that the two major Mizrahi revolutions in that decade each involved Peres' defeat.

The Mizrahi decade was rife with politicians from the "Oriental" communities, as they were once called, who aspired to reach the top and were considered crown princes and great hopes: Aryeh Deri, Moshe Katsav, Shlomo Ben-Ami, David Levy (of whom Ezer Weizman once said, "I was in the government for seven years with that Bedouin, and I never heard him say anything dumb") and Yitzhak Mordechai. Three of the five ended up by being indicted. David Levy, who did not leave in time, was humiliated and reviled by Sharon, who left him out of the cabinet, and after a few dry years in the Knesset cafeteria melted out of political life.

Ben-Ami writes books, lectures, is engaged in global diplomatic activity, and lives mostly in Madrid. The Or Commission, which investigated the events of October 2000 in the Arab sector, when Ben-Ami was public security minister, asserted that he would not be able to return to that post. But that is hardly the post he is dreaming of. He is not considering a comeback in the sense of a return to political or public activity. If he is called, he will come only to the Foreign Ministry.

After Peretz was elected chairman of the Labor Party, Barak visited Ben-Ami in his home. He was in a melancholy mood. "If there is anyone from the immigration of the 1950s who is worthy of being prime minister, it is you," Barak said. Ben-Ami received this with his characteristic British sense of humor and with the requisite modesty. He never tried to ride the ethnic horse - as Peretz, for example, did. So he has no problem talking about the subject.

"That phenomenon," Ben-Ami said this week, "is a sign of maturity. It used to be that an effort was made to integrate members of the Middle Eastern communities in the top ranks, because a party like the Likud felt that it needed a Mizrahi in a senior position in order to win. Today the discourse is completely different. Kadima did not feel that it had to have a Mizrahi in second place or third place in order to win - otherwise they might have made an effort in the direction of Mofaz or Sheetrit. Maybe there is something to the claim that in postmodern Israel the discourse concerning Mizrahim is about their place on 'A Star Is Born' [Israel's version of "American Idol"] and not in politics. And if any of them try to make even implicit use of the Mizrai issue to get ahead, it would be ruinous for them."

In Ben-Ami's view, excessive weight was ascribed to the Mizrahi issue in the 1990s, too. "It belonged more to the previous generation, the 1980s, but somehow it also got dragged into the decade that followed. Today, no one will appoint someone in the Defense Ministry in order to fill a 'Mizrahi' slot. The person who will be appointed is someone who is best equipped to deal with the Iranian threat and with Hezbollah."

Meir Sheetrit, the current interior minister, thinks there is no story here. It's all coincidence, he says, and it could all change if, for example, he were to be elected head of Kadima, as he is convinced he will.

"The issue of the Mizrahi communities in politics no longer plays a role," he says. "True, David Levy was appointed foreign minister in the Shamir government [1990], because he made a federal case out of it. From that day on, he was the groundbreaker. But the other appointments were on merit. Itzik Mordechai was a major general, he was first on the Likud list, and Bibi [Netanyahu] needed him as defense minister. Sharon had a political agreement with Silvan [Shalom], Mofaz was chief of staff, and when I was appointed finance minister in the Netanyahu government I was very popular with the public.

"Olmert, as he himself said, simply appointed his friends. You know, we had an agreement that I would get the treasury if it were in Kadima's hands, and he reneged on it. I could have been finance minister today, and then the picture you are painting would be incorrect."

Sheetrit is right. If Olmert had appointed him, he would be finance minister. But Olmert did not think he had to appoint him. Perhaps 10 or even five years ago, the considerations would have been different. There is no bottom line in this story. Maybe it's all coincidence, maybe Israel has changed, maybe the large number of Russian-speaking voters contributed to the weakening of the Mizrahi status. Maybe, as Ben-Ami says, we are simply more mature and the preoccupation with this issue is only the fruit of the silly season.

Barak goes shopping

The saga of Ami Ayalon's appointment as minister without portfolio is staring to look like a 200-episode telenovela. For two months "contacts" have been held and "talks" have been taking place, and whenever it looks like Ayalon is about to enter the government something happens to halt the process and a new chapter begins.

Ayalon could have been education minister immediately after the primaries, but passed it up. He could have been a minister in the Defense Ministry, but passed it up. Now, having made every possible mistake and having hemmed and hawed aplenty and retracted all the vehement statements he made against entering the government, he is intensively negotiating the terms for his entry.

Ehud Barak wants to fashion an "attractive" team for the next elections. He is not making do with the group of Labor ministers that already exists, but wants to add people who are identified with uprightness and integrity, such as Ayalon, Ophir Pines-Paz, and also Uzi Dayan, his buddy from the army whom he had wanted to see become chief of staff. In the past few weeks, Barak's confidant, attorney Eldad Yaniv, has been conducting negotiations with Dayan on the terms for his hooking up with Barak. It's probably a matter of price: Dayan, a failed politician with populist tendencies, is well aware that he is wasting his time and his donors' money in his Tafnit movement. He continues to declare that he is busy "strengthening Tafnit, and all this talk is still premature." But it is clear to him, too, that the Tafnit adventure failed and that he can find suitable employment only in a big party.

Completely by chance, exactly in the week when the Barak-Ayalon deal seemed about to be consummated, an "initiative" cropped up in Labor to enshrine the number two slot on the party's Knesset list for Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Ben-Eliezer, who is mostly responsible for Barak's narrow victory over Ayalon (52 percent to 48 percent) in the party's leadership contest, is watching worriedly Barak's efforts to get Ayalon into the government and build him up as a member of the leader's team. Ben-Eliezer is concerned that he will lose his status as the party's senior minister and as the natural, almost congenital, number-two after Barak.

By the way, in a private conversation Barak said recently that one of his biggest mistakes in the years when he was out of the political game was not heeding Ben-Eliezer's political advice more. We will wait and see what Barak will do with the advice that "Fuad" is now transmitting to him by indirect means: Deir balak, Ehud, don't mess with me!