Reality television, multiplying exponentially via the Internet, has solidified its hold on American political life. From Donald Trump's ill-advised presidential run to President Obama's call out to Honey Boo Boo, reality and entertainment have merged into a new political culture. Israel, never out of step with American trends and fashion, had its own campaign season premiere last week for the elections to be held on January 22, 2013. Candidates include media stars turned politicians, social protest leaders turned media stars and a celebrity criminal who served prison time for bribery, returning to politics as a champion of the poor. Yaakov Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet who served as a judge on "The Ambassador," an Israeli clone of Trump’s “The Apprentice” TV show, joins Yair Lapid, erstwhile talk-show host and founder of the new Yesh Atid party, while Eytan Schwartz, winner of “The Ambassador,” debuts as a contender on the Labor list.
Further fodder for juicy media coverage is provided by the gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who launched the free Hebrew daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom to sing the praises of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and last summer hosted a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser for Mitt Romney, conspicuously held in Jerusalem. All this lends itself to high entertainment, but given the dangerous issues that will continue to plague both Israel and the US over the next four years, this reality, absurd as it seems, is all too real.
For the past several months, the imminent Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was inserted into the US presidential campaign by an Israeli prime minister who clearly understood the degree to which this could be considered interference. This same prime minster did not hesitate to welcome the Republican contender during his Israel campaign swing with bear hugs meant to squeeze the air out of the Democratic incumbent's Jewish support. Whether Netanyahu's actions were a cunning attempt to divert Israeli public attention away from either the economic problems at home or the continued paralysis on the diplomatic front really doesn't matter. What does matter is that a fragile barrier that delineated responsible from irresponsible behavior was broken, and along with it the unassailable bipartisan trust that has characterized Israeli-American relations for decades.
It's so hard to know what is real here. Until election fever reached the pitch that took it from a warning to an actual date, the whole country was consumed with Iran, gas masks, Hezbollah, chemical weapons from Syria, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Doomsday, any which way you looked. But now, as multiple political parties are rushing to form their lists and distinguish themselves one from the other, we see the glaring existential threats begin to recede. It started with Netanyahu’s UN performance and his ridiculous diagram of an atomic bomb. With one infantile drawing he moved the due date of nuclear disaster down the road by several months. Ehud Barak, who had previously lent loyal support to Bibi's supercharged rhetoric, staked out a new more neutral position, arguing against disrespecting the American administration or alienating the international community. Desperate to gain enough seats for his beleaguered Independence Party to guarantee him a slot in the next government, the Minister of Defense is rapidly becoming a voice of reason and moderation. A master of self-reinvention, Barak is actively calling for progress on the Palestinian front, offering new unilateral plans akin to Sharon's disengagement from Gaza and his own withdrawal from Lebanon.
Elsewhere on the political map, the focus is on the economy and social welfare. The Labor Party, which has gained strength in the polls in recent weeks, is led by former journalist Shelly Yechimovich who has yet to articulate any position on peace and security. Another political party, Shas, makes no claims in this arena but instead follows the advice of its supreme leader, the 92-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on a wide social agenda including discrimination against Sephardic students and economically distressed populations. The rightwing, Russian and national religious parties who uphold the settlement enterprise and seek to avoid any concessions for peace, are competing with one another to present the tougher, more uncompromising stance that illustrates the firm belief that our enemies only recognize strength.
The hit parade has just begun and who's on top is not yet known. All indicators are that Bibi and the Likud will continue to reign for many years to come. Yet so much in this part of the world is a product of the unknown, the unexpected event that can turn reality on its head. It is unlikely that a newly converged center party headed by former Kadima leaders Tzipi Livni and/or Ehud Olmert will be such a game-changer. But if the spontaneous demand for social justice that brought hundreds of thousands of Israeli protestors out into the streets two summers ago will flare up anew; if the silent majority that expects Israel's leader to maintain a respectful relationship with Israel's closest ally choose to speak their mind; if putting national interests above political interests becomes an election demand, then who knows, this show may yet produce a very different reality.
Roberta Fahn Schoffman is IPF’s Israel Director. She served as Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Adviser on World Jewish Affairs from 1999 to 2001. Previously, Fahn Schoffman represented both the Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC in their Jerusalem offices, contributing in-depth, up-to-the-minute policy analyses and accompanying more than 100 Members of Congress and elected officials during their visits to Israel. In 1988, she served as the Jewish Affairs and Middle East Adviser to California Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy for his Senate campaign. She holds a B.A. from the University of California and an M.A. from the Hebrew University's Institute of Contemporary Jewry