Show and Tele

Why have Israel's handful of media-savvy Clinton- and Blair-wannabes failed?

"The Tele-Politicians: New Political Leadership in the West and Israel" by Orit Galili, Ramot, 163 pages.

"Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel" by Yoram Peri, Stanford University Press, 376 pages, $24.95

Fifteen years ago, communication scholar Prof. Dan Caspi and the editor of the Guttman Institute of Applied Social Research's public opinion survey, Hanna Levinson, published an article in Haaretz entitled "Does telepolitics exist in Israel?" The article appeared in the wake of the 1988 elections in which, according to the authors, public relations experts, image-makers and pollsters contributed to the "Americanization and personalization of the election campaigns."

The innovation that the importers of American culture tried to introduce here in Israel was the concept that candidates and their personal traits were more important than the ideology or the political message. However, based on a large number of public opinion polls, Caspi and Levinson reached the conclusion that local voters still considered ideology the chief factor in determining how they would cast their ballot and that the personal factor - that is, the candidate - was of minor importance. Why? Because of the unique character of Israeli society, explained the authors: "Unlike the affluent societies of the West, Israeli society is preoccupied with questions of survival. The Israeli public cannot afford to be frivolous and to be seduced by media gimmicks. Israeli voters are impressed not by the candidates' attire or style of speech but rather by the solutions they offer and their positions on various issues, including the Israeli-Arab conflict." Thus, the authors conclude, telepolitics in Israel is a myth that has no basis in reality.

Along comes Dr. Orit Galili, who, in her interesting book, "The Tele-Politicians: New Political Leadership in the West and Israel," argues that, in the meantime, a "new style of politics" has sprung up that cultivates leaders of a breed that Israelis have never seen before. According to Galili - a former Haaretz correspondent, and currently a lecturer in Bar-Ilan University's political science and communication departments and head of a political leadership project in Tel Aviv University's School of Government and Policy - the "new politicians" are better skilled in identifying the will of the voters, who, in a post-materialistic era, are more interested in subjects close to their heart and less interested in the "larger issues" or even in ideology.

Gone is the era of such outdated leaders as Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who used to say, in the style of another leader whom he admired, Kemal Ataturk, founder and first president of Turkey, "I could not care less what the people wants, I know what the people needs." This is the very same Ben-Gurion, who, in the 1960s, so it is told, returned a television set he had received with a note explaining why television was a threat to Israeli society.

In Galili's view, we are living in a new era - the era of politicians like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and - in Israel - Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and (yes!) Haim Ramon, whose electoral alternatives, presented in the late 1990s, included "a high level of marketing skills, post-Weberian charisma and the electoral allure of the `winning horse' as expressed in public opinion polls."

Interesting analysis

If the above quote appears clumsy, it faithfully reflects the heavy-handed style of the book, which gives the impression that it was produced for the express purpose of scaring off a large number of readers. The explanation for the failure of our "new politicians" thus reads: "Israel's `new politicians' failed to implement a policy that was congruent with the external presentation that was the infrastructure for their election hopes (an infrastructure that was not accompanied by the empathetic rhetoric characteristic of the `new politicians' in the West) - in other words, a policy suited to the apparently self-contradictory needs of the Israeli public in the late 20th century and early 21st: a desire for a Jewish state coupled with an interest in, and solidarity with, a new, post-materialistic agenda."

This statement sounds like Ehud Barak trying to "clarify issues," and this kind of writing is regrettable - unless, of course, Galili from the start had the intention of aiming her book at a handful of political scientists and communication scholars. However, those who manage to wade through such stylistic disasters will be treated to a very interesting analysis of the reasons why politicians like Clinton, Tony "Third Way" Blair and Schroeder have succeeded. Galili is less persuasive when she tries to use a meta-thesis in order to include our own "new politicians" in this group. As Galili sees things, Israel's "new politicians" have failed because, unlike their Western counterparts, they focused on "democracy's structural, procedural and instrumental factors, instead of values such as human rights, freedom and equality, which are identified with the `new politics.'"

For instance, Galili believes that the "open skies" policy (allowing satellite broadcasts by local and foreign entities in Israel) promoted by Limor Livnat during her stint as communications minister did not stem from any real desire to respond to society's need for a discourse on human rights and for cultural pluralism, but rather from a desire to create additional channels of communication for politicians. Or, Barak's public apology to Israel's Sephardi Jews. In 1982, Israeli author Amos Oz was told the following in a coffee shop in Beit Shemesh: "You people want to put an end to hatred within the Jewish community? First of all, come and say very nicely how sorry you are" (in "Here and There in the Land of Israel in the Autumn of 1982," translated into English by Maurie Goldberg). A few years later, perhaps emulating Clinton, who apologized to Afro-Americans for slavery, Barak nicely admitted how sorry he was. However, the apology fell on deaf ears because, according to Barak, Israeli society is not yet ready to rise above the walls of separation that fragment it and to adopt a central agenda of common interest to all.

Where's Ben-Ami?

In light of the above, it is very strange, almost incredible as far as I am concerned, that Galili's book makes no mention of Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, one of the few people who tried to follow the very path that she recommends. His book, "Room for Everyone: Eli Bar-Navi Talks with Shlomo Ben-Ami" (United Kibbutz Press, 1998, in Hebrew) is a fascinating "new Labor" vision of a truly new politics, a rescue plan to free Israelis from their traditional trap where, according to Ben-Ami, citizens who have been the victims of Likud-style Thatcherism repeatedly vote for the very people who are exploiting them. He intended to launch his rescue plan not by means of gestures, but by establishing objectives and a new agenda, working in the field and educating the public to think differently. Ben-Ami proved that he was no day-dreamer when he attained high ranking in his party's primaries; however, Barak liquidated him politically: Barak (the prime minister "of e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e") removed the "for everyone" from "Room for Everyone" and dispatched Ben-Ami to the least suitable post imaginable - the ministry of public security where he was buried by the events of October 2000 and by the findings of the Or Commission.

But let us return to Galili's explanation of the failure of Israel's "new politicians." Did they really fail because they had not internalized the post-materialistic value system and because they did not know how to put together a suitable agenda for solving the Israeli-Arab conflict? In my opinion, the answer is no. Netanyahu and Barak failed for two very different reasons. First of all, the Israeli public discovered personal flaws in the two and became disgusted with their leadership. Second, it is unfortunately difficult for Israelis to promote a post-materialistic discourse on such issues as gender and social discrimination while living in a reality of suicide bombings and threats to the very survival of the State of Israel. Galili herself admits with regret that the hegemony of security-oriented thinking continues to prevail in Israeli society. Thus, Barak's (only?) achievement - rescuing Israel from the Lebanese quagmire - has absolutely nothing to do with post-materialist discourse. Moreover, if and when Barak returns to the political arena to enter the battle for leadership of the country, he will do so on a security-oriented platform and will portray himself against the backdrop of the withdrawal from Lebanon, as someone who truly knows how to withdraw Israel from the territories instead of merely talking about the idea.

Sharon goes on

But, in the meantime, what leaders are we left with in 2004, after we have finished Galili's book? With Ariel Sharon, the image of the lovable grandfather, perhaps the only politician perceived as possessing a solution to the question of Palestinian terror (the real problem that concerns Israelis at the moment!), and with someone whom Galili does not even mention - the eternal Shimon Peres. From the time he declared his vision of a "car for every worker" 40 years ago to the proclamation of his dream of a "New Middle East," Peres has refuted all the theories of political scientists and has proven that, even without ever winning an election, it is still possible to remain almost always near the wheel of the ship of state.

Haaretz commentator Doron Rosenblum once wrote that Peres "declared categorically to the representatives of Shas and Agudat Israel: `In order to establish a government that will promote the outlook of our world, we are prepared to review our platform and to alter the sections pertaining to security, religion and the state, and borders. Nor do we totally rule out the possibility of supporting an amendment to the `Who is a Jew' law and even expressing objections to opposition to the idea of a transfer [of Arabs to other countries].'"

When his interlocutor responded that the Likud had already given a similar promise, Peres "drew an ace from his sleeve. Not even the Likud had thought of such an ace (this individual is a real political animal, all right). He announced categorically that the Labor Alignment would support a law requiring compulsory head coverings." These words were written in the wake of the 1988 elections, but they bear considerable relevance even today. Indeed, "this individual is a real political animal, all right," and apparently, Israelis who have begun to express a certain degree of disgust with stars and meteors that come and go, do not take that fact lightly.

Dr. Yoram Peri has written a scholarly book about parallel developments in the media and politics in Israel in the 1990s: in the media - the newspapers' loss of stature, the shift from verbal to visual messages, and television's control over our lives - and in politics, the impact of the arrival of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the exposure to globalization, the growing impact of Israel's control of 3.5 million Palestinians, and the negative changes that began to appear in Israel's political parties. When these two trends merged, a new reality was created in Israel. Peri calls that new reality "mediapolitik." He surveys the historical development of this process from the era when the press took part in nation-building activities and served the regime, to the era when the press underwent a transformation and became "confrontational" - that is, when it adopted the strategy of "attack journalism."

Although this is nothing new, Peri does a superb job of analyzing the dramatic turnaround that occured when the media stopped surveying the political arena and began pulling the strings. He writes that only what is publicized in the media is defined and considered part of our reality. The coverage of politics shifted from a focus on real issues to a game of personalities where pollsters and media consultants determine the fate of the country's politicians. Instead of molding an agenda on the Arab-Israeli conflict and social issues or working in a consistent manner toward that agenda's implementation, politicians continually shift their positions in response to the whims of a highly erratic media community (Barak's famous zigzag). In order to function in such a situation, political leaders have been forced to adjust their positions to the demands of the media and have reached the point where they are gradually being molded by them.

Thus, in light of the above, it is not at all surprising that Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his decision to run in the California gubernatorial race on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and that he recruited the director of several of his films, Ivan Reitman, for his transition team. Nor is it strange that, when he presented his running mate, John Edwards, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry declared proudly the advantages of his team over the Bush-Cheney team: "We've got better vision, better ideas - and we've got better hair." (Well, they do have a point.)

However, television not only flattens everything, it also removes complex messages - in fact, any message that might be somewhat difficult for viewers to understand. Stage presence is everything. When the affair of the cassette starring former Shinui minister of national infrastructures Yosef Paritzky recently erupted, he raced, as if this were the most sensible thing to do, over to Channel 1's studio. Roni Rimon, a strategy consultant and public relations expert, praised the minister's appearance the next day in the newspaper: "Paritzky appeared in the studio in a suit and tie, and gave the kind of performance one would expect from a responsible politician. All these elements are of utmost importance in such an official situation as this one is. His voice was slightly hoarse and that fact added to the credibility of his apology. His tone of voice, which expressed embarrassment, further augmented that credibility."

Nevertheless, Rimon found fault in Paritzky's appearance: "He was at times drawn into debates that shifted the focus of the discussion from the central, and only, message he wanted to convey. The debate over the legality of the affair and over the technical details was unnecessary."

The heart of the book is its second section, entitled "Netanyahu's Telepopulism." This may be the first time that someone presents, in an almost scholarly manner, the way Netanyahu has blended politics with the media, thus creating something altogether new - telepopulism. Not only does Peri describe in great detail Netanyahu's skillful and sophisticated media behavior (for example, his immediate appearance on television following publication of the State Prosecution's unflattering report on the Bar-On-Hebron affair, when he hastened to declare that the report had completely cleared his name) - he also extensively discusses the rules that the former prime minister has developed for work with the media: Always take the initiative; what is important is not what you did, but what you said you did; make frequent use of the carrot-and-stick technique; when attacked, shift the focus of attention to another issue; and when you repeat something enough times, it will become truth (this rule was contributed by consultant Arthur Finkelstein).

It is hard to develop much solidarity with Netanyahu between the lines here, where he is compared to "many other telepopulist leaders" such as Silvio Berlusconi and Carlos Menem. Although he tries to restrain himself, it is difficult to overlook the great displeasure in Peri's depiction of an interview that "Bibi" Netanyahu gave to Channel 1's Ehud Ya'ari and Dan Semama (on January 22, 1997). In that interview, he did not look at Ya'ari and Semama, choosing instead to face the audience. When the two interviewers insisted that he continue with the interview, he fired back: "In my naivete, I thought that the prime minister was allowed to address the people directly." Similarly, Peri describes in detail Netanyahu's attacks on the media ("They're afraid!"). In the wake of one attack, Chemi Shalev wrote in Maariv (on April 2, 1999) that Israel's journalists were in mortal danger.

However, there is a happy ending (for the moment): Peri emphasizes the victory of journalists and the media in Israel over the former prime minister. He notes that they prevented him from "taking over the media and establishing a telepopulist system in which they would be tools in his hands."

These two books should always be close at hand. Since it is a safe bet that we will soon see Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu fighting each other in the political ring and - with their previous experience in the back of their minds - determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, it will be interesting to judge their performance in light of their earlier track record, which is mercilessly analyzed in both books.

Uri Dromi is editor-in-chief of publications at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.