My Word: Magic or trick? (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By LIAT COLLINS 05/13/12)
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It was the drama in the voices that first alerted me to the fact that
I had gone to sleep in one political reality and woken up to another.
Something in the presentation of the radio news show immediately
conveyed that May 8 was not starting as just another day in this
country, which rarely lacks either news or drama.
A few seconds’ talk of the “new unity government” had me checking the
date to make sure it was not a broadcast of archive material of some
kind. A few seconds more had me checking I was really awake. I was.
Not only awake, in fact, but like any other journalist who had
published anything about the expected expedited national elections, I
was hastily going over in my mind what I had written a few days
I mentally kicked myself for having deleted my original final
paragraph in which I had noted: “But in Israeli politics, anything
can happen, and often does.” Too trite; too obvious, my inner editor
had told me at the time.
I gave myself a gold star, however, for noting that Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu is “known as The Magician for his ability to pull
off political tricks that challenge the [election] genie.”
Magic tricks, as we all know, rely on timing, creating the right
atmosphere and behind-the-scenes preparation. Political tricks, it
seems, require the same basic elements.
Whether you agreed with the move or not, it was impressive to see the
manner in which Netanyahu so smoothly and swiftly brought Kadima
leader Shaul Mofaz and his whole faction of 28 MKs into the
government, while Israelis were sleeping.
Throughout the day, several English-speakers asked me how to
translate or describe “hatargil hamasriah.” The phrase “the stinking
maneuver” had made a comeback. As Netanyahu metaphorically pulled
Mofaz out of his hat, journalists, commentators and the prime
minister’s political opponents tried to find a word to describe what
he had done.
Netanyahu’s move last week was different from the “stinking maneuver”
of 1990, but I could see why it came to mind.
If nothing else, the general public lost even more respect for
politicians and increased demands for electoral reform.
The 1990 maneuver took place when then-Labor Party leader Shimon
Peres tried to double-cross both his senior national coalition
partner – prime minister Yitzhak Shamir – and his main rival within
Labor – Yitzhak Rabin – by conspiring behind their backs to topple
the unity government in which they were all members.
His idea was to use Shas, the religious party then under the
leadership of Aryeh Deri, to form a new government without the Likud.
The attempt faltered when Peres was left with one MK short of the
majority he needed. Ultimately, Shamir continued to serve as prime
minister until new elections were called in 1992, but not for want of
trying on Peres’s part.
It is human nature, perhaps – or perhaps the nature of politics –
that many of the same people who a week before vociferously condemned
the idea of early elections as “pointless” and “a waste of money,”
last week were condemning Netanyahu’s move to avoid them as
But Netanyahu did not suddenly extend his term, he merely brought his
government a measure of stability to enable it to survive until the
original election date: October 2013.
This is no great change, it is a great achievement. It does indeed
save dragging the country into a period of electioneering in which
the Knesset does not function, budgets are not allocated, and
parliamentarians are more concerned with their own futures than
planning ahead for the greater good. When ministers and politicians
are especially eager to be photographed cutting a red ribbon, they
are tempted to take shortcuts. They also tend to ignore the important
but unsexy issues – which include anything to do with the old, infirm
or mentally disabled – in favor of subjects that look good in the
Shortly before the last elections, in 2009, when Netanyahu visited
The Jerusalem Post editorial staff, I asked him how he intended to
prevent a repeat of the demise of his first term in office, when his
government was toppled from within over implementation of the Oslo
Accords which he had inherited. He responded, and has emphasized
repeatedly since then, that he was aiming for as large a coalition as
Last week’s maneuver doesn’t just show the extent to which Netanyahu
learned the lessons of the past, it shows the extent to which newly
ousted Kadima leader Tzipi Livni misplayed her cards when she had a
chance to join the coalition from the start.
Livni seems to me to be the biggest loser of this move. (Yair Lapid
admittedly prematurely jumped into the political arena, but he now
has more than a year to prepare himself for the real thing: He will
be judged by how he handles this period – as an opportunity or an
The stinking maneuver was not the only phrase that created a stink
last week. The word “combina” – that peculiar Israeli form of
wheeling and dealing – also bounced back. And “politika’i” –
politician – enounced as an epithet, not a compliment, also hangs in
the air and on Facebook pages.
But there is nothing innately wrong with the idea of political
maneuvering: What Israelis think of the latest deal depends largely
on whereabouts on the political map they are standing as they examine
Netanyahu managed overnight to create his dream coalition, with a
solid majority of nearly 100 out of the 120-member Knesset, side-
streaming the smaller religious parties and the right wing, including
his nemesis within the Likud, Moshe Feiglin, and his former friend
turned rival Avigdor Liberman as head of Yisrael Beytenu. Liberman,
of course, is not known for his subtlety, and it was his notso-
veiled threat to stop toeing the coalition line that provided the
main impetus for Netanyahu to reach out to Mofaz in the first place.
He also managed to conjure up a platform – compulsory conscription
that includes the ultra-Orthodox and electoral reform – that has
broad appeal. Even the attempt to revive the diplomatic process with
the Palestinians – if handled properly – could go down well, although
I suspect that by now most Israelis and Palestinians would prefer a
modus vivendi that we can all live with rather than another “peace
process” that blows up in our faces.
Inevitably the maneuver will star in future election campaigns; the
words “liar” and “zigzag” were also bandied around last week. It will
also be used as a means to resurrect the social protests this summer –
just as soon as the students start their vacation period – although
hitching it to the social justice movement does an injustice to the
rest of the country’s citizens. Arguably, the broad coalition offers
Netanyahu the chance to sensibly implement necessary social and
economic reforms (hint: privatization is not the only answer).
Netanyahu has bought Mofaz, bought time, and has secured himself
another claim to fame in local political history. The hat that a lot
of people were forced to eat last week belongs on a magician’s head.
But as I should have pointed out before: “In Israeli politics,
anything can happen, and often does.”
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. (© 1995-
2011, The Jerusalem Post 05/13/12)
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