Standing Tall to Be Counted

On Tuesday, former basketball star Tal Brody finally understood that he is actually a politician.

On Tuesday, former basketball star Tal Brody finally understood that he is actually a politician. In a phone conversation several days before the Likud Central Committee meeting, he sounded to me like a reinforcement player who will help the team from the sidelines, all the while careful not to step in. And yet here he is, standing in the lobby of Pavilion 10 at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, engaging in politics. His look is almost apologetic, like someone who, although he can't hear a single word in the terrible racket, is full of goodwill and excellent intentions.

Brody is not just another politician on the Likud's coastal plain slate, he's a tyro. He wants to reach a realistic spot in the party primary and is doing everything a politician should do, or at least what the people he is paying are telling him to do (he is said to be spending about NIS 200,000 on his primary campaign).

They are telling him that a politician must visit the souk, and novice politicians don't ask why. Do you want to be a politician? Go to the market, see to it that you connect with the people and prove that you have thick skin. Let's see Ehud Barak with his thick skin walking around the Netanya market.

The Netanya souk is a Likud market, and the American-born Brody has been a Likudnik for the past 13 years. On the last Friday in November, four days before the central committee meeting, he can be seen walking among the stalls, wearing a pin-striped blue and red shirt and jeans that are slightly too long. Brody is 65 years old and looks good. His hair is jet black, his physique fit and he wears a smile that testifies to the fact that he is really enjoying himself here.

Although two veteran Russian immigrants are asking, in Russian, "Who is Brody," with a little prodding many people recognize him, and immediately call out to him, "We're on the map, eh?" The sentence is Brody's invention. Thirty-one years ago, Maccabi Tel Aviv won the basketball Euroleague championship and Brody was recorded rejoicing, "We're on the map and we're gonna stay on the map." The sentence is somewhat awkward, and refers after all to a basketball team, but over the years it was honed and improved until it turned into a short and snappy: "We're on the map." Although most Netanyans love soccer and hate Maccabi Tel Aviv, everyone knows "We're on the map."

Brody doesn't abandon the map for a moment. It's his symbol. "Tal Brody will put the Likud back on the map," he promises on fliers that his wife Tirza is distributing in the market. Tirza Brody is in her late 40s. A thin and attractive woman, she too is dressed in jeans and a shiny purple shirt, with a big necklace. She is her husband's entry ticket into the market: She was born here in Netanya. Her uncle, Pini Bukra, has a potato stall here and her father is part of the entourage. Bukra wears a large skullcap, long tzitzit wind around his thighs. He walks a few steps ahead of the candidate, shouting, "Tal Brody! Tal Brody!"

The stall owners smile politely; once Brody has passed, they ask who the man is. Afterward, assuming that I am an important if not a leading Likud activist, they politely return the fliers to me. Following Brody is a reporter for a local Netanya newspaper. She closes in on him in ever smaller circles, to the point of real danger. From the depths of a dark stall someone shouts at Brody, "You're white, what do you want in the Likud?" The remark evokes laughter among the entourage - but it is a bit too raucous. Well, it's a joke, isn't it? The souk welcomes Brody. The people here look him straight in the eye and say affectionately: Listen, you're a great guy! Speaking in a whisper, they tell him about their own private scoop: Labor is finished. Then they pinch him affectionately, slap him noisily on the back, pull his cheek to theirs so as to get a picture with their cell phone. They even shove a pineapple into his hand and shout: Take a picture, take a picture!

Not a politician at all

Tal Brody was born in New Jersey, a state that knows how to honor basketball players. Thirty years ago, New Jersey sent basketball player Bill Bradley to the U.S. Senate. Brody was born in the same year as Bradley, who joined the Senate at the age of 35. At that time, Brody was still running around on the basketball court in Yad Eliyahu, scoring baskets and inventing immortal slogans.

Netanya is not New Jersey, and the fate of an outstanding athlete in the U.S. is not the same as that of his colleague here. A month ago, star basketballer Kevin Johnson, 33, became the mayor of Sacramento, the capital of California. Tanhum Cohen-Mintz, who embodies Maccabi no less than Brody, would not excite the Netanya market. Insurance agent Mickey Berkowitz, another Maccabi icon, could also cross the street here and nobody would faint. Shiye Glazer, a soccer player whose talent equals that of Brody, now spends his days on Dizengoff Street, sipping cappuccino and munching on rugelach with a group of Egged pensioners.

About half a year ago, Brody met with Bradley - who retired from the Senate in 1997. Bradley advised him to consult with people outside his inner circle, too. Bradley is a liberal Democrat, whereas Brody is a conservative Likudnik. Had he participated in the U.S. elections, Brody would have voted for John McCain. He doesn't trust anyone without experience.

But what about him? What about his experience? Ah, he says, I'm not a politician at all. Why is he running in the primary? Because "Bibi [Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu] told me that it's important for the country." His Hebrew, with its excessive use of the English phrase "you know," does not testify to the fact that he has been living here for over 40 years; his American "r" rolls around his mouth like a big stone.

His political philosophy, on the other hand, is simpler: He is concerned about Jewish assimilation (he has numbers, too) and he will promote "the field of sports." Brody scornfully rejects the claim that he is resting on his glorious basketball past. What are you talking about, he says angrily. After all, I have done things here. But a small dark orange basketball is imprinted on his flier - just to be on the safe side.

Cooking up deals

On Tuesday, in Pavilion 10, Brody is dressed in a black jacket, a striped tie and gray pants. He shakes hands, and makes a genuine effort to listen to what people are telling him. He is surrounded by central committee members who are trying to slap him on the back, to have their picture taken with him, to joke about his height compared to their short stature.

On the wooden railing, not far from Brody, the real politicos are huddled with one another, with their backs to the hall. That's how they do politics. They cook up deals, exchange wrinkled notes, spew out numbers with pursed lips and cast about worried glances.

Next to them another politician, who happens to be new, is walking around with his hands in his pockets. This is an isolated, plucked and sad politician. He also had an agenda once. He also did things, not so long ago, only a decade ago. It is Uzi Dayan, former IDF deputy chief of staff - and very few people are interested in him. Not far from Dayan, Yossi Peled is wandering around, yet another general. He also did things here 20 years ago. That's how it is in politics. There's no guarantee that political memory can last for 30 years, even if back then you put us on the map.