This column is not about the Israeli skepticism of the current Iranian/American romantic interlude that I planned to write about. And despite the next few paragraphs, this column also is not about the Israeli film industry.
We are proud of the profound transformation in Israeli cinema. Over the last decade, four Israeli films have been finalists for the best foreign language feature at the Oscars, and other films have been finalists in categories such as best foreign documentary. During this time, many prestigious international awards have been won by Israeli movies, which have come a long way in a short time. As recently as the late ‘90s, serious Israeli movies that tried to shed light on important themes did not succeed either at the box office or in impacting the political discourse.
The Israeli movies that did succeed were made-for-the-masses fluff flicks. These so-called “Bourekas movies” are named after the inexpensive street pastry popular in areas with large concentrations of immigrants from North African and Middle Eastern countries. Ironically the film credited with launching the Bourekas genre was actually the first Israeli film ever nominated for an Oscar. “Salah Shabbati,” the 1964 comedy classic directed by the late, great satirist Ephraim Kishon, overcame significant cinematic imperfections through its relevant and biting criticism of the Israeli establishment. The protagonist, a recent immigrant portrayed by Haim Topol, overcomes his naivety, innocence and helplessness. He transforms into a true Israeli by leveraging his frustration into a power base that the politicians crave. Politicians reward him with an apartment for his large family in return for him delivering the votes of his fellow dwellers in the temporary camps for new immigrants. While we wish this practice, called “combinas,” was a disappearing phenomenon, it is still alive and kicking in certain areas of Israeli politics.
Alas, to the subject of the column: The October elections in all municipalities and local authorities reminded me of “Salah Shabbati.” The most dramatic election was in Jerusalem – not because it is the capital or the biggest municipality, but because one of the biggest combinas ever conceived hovered above the city like clouds of acid rain. Since 2008 Jerusalem has been led by Nir Barkat, who in my opinion is the poster boy for what Israel can and should be and sometimes is. Born in Jerusalem in 1959 to a dance instructor and Hebrew University physics professor, he served for six years in an elite paratroop unit and was discharged as a major. After receiving his degree in computer science, he founded a software company called BRM in 1988, which specialized in antivirus software. The company became an incubator venture firm that invested in companies such as Check Point and Backweb. He later helped found the social investment company IVN. Several successful investments made him one of the wealthiest Israelis. In 2003 he entered politics, winning a seat on the Jerusalem city council. Through his efforts in the opposition to improve services, education and infrastructure, and also due to his considerable wealth, he successfully won the next mayoral election.
Barkat’s agenda has been to ensure that the unique character of the city is protected while simultaneously modernizing and establishing Jerusalem as a center for Israeli and international political, educational, cultural and artistic events. This has not only increased tourism, it has also strengthened the city’s economy, helping to reduce the emigration of the young and professional secular population. The benefits that the image of a young, energetic, athletic, handsome, successful entrepreneur running a revitalized Jerusalem projects on the national and international stage is both a concrete and intangible asset that is invaluable to Jerusalem and Israel. Barkat has chosen to draw an annual salary of one shekel.
Barkat has maintained a pragmatic stance and cannot be labeled right or left wing. He has steered clear of national politics, which has helped him maintain the religious and ethnic status quo between secular, religious, Ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, Christian, etc. But this balancing act has made him vulnerable. If this doesn’t create antagonism, it can create Election Day apathy that almost always hurts incumbents. His international vision for the city also created a dissonance with many residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods, whose progress has been slower than the rest of the city. Despite this, like Yair Lapid, Barkat is another example of a successful Israeli with every life option available to him, who entered politics not for personal aggrandizement but to give something back and make our lives better.
Against this background, two national politicians, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, and Arieh Deri, the leader of the Orthodox Sephardic party Shas, joined forces to attempt to unseat Barkat and regain the political power both men had lost since the national elections in March. Deri presided over a disappointing national election that left Shas out of the government for the first time in many years.
They put up as their candidate accountant Moshe Leon, who had been a Netanyahu chief-of-staff in the late ‘90s, and who has only periodically resided in Jerusalem. Lieberman was to deliver the votes of the approximately 40,000 Russian-speaking immigrants. Deri was to bring the sizable Sephardic religious vote as well as Ashkenazi or Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodox votes through his connections with the groups’ leading rabbis. They calculated that the vast majority of secular voters would be apathetic, and that the nationalist religious and modern Orthodox vote would be divided. Therefore the combina, imposed from above, would unseat Barkat. They also hoped to win many other municipalities where they made similar deals and put up candidates. As Disraeli commented, “nothing in politics is contemptible.”
With this political machine behind him, Leon set out to try to assert his legitimacy while trying to deny the combina hovering in the air. But this would not deter the voters who the two kingpins had supposedly lined up. Barkat, with superior finances and use of technology (his brother and business partner developed an app that allowed the campaign to locate supporters on Election Day and to encourage them to vote), used the combina as a rallying point to portray Leon as a puppet. “It shows the political hacks culture” he said. “I heard that he (Leon) didn’t even want to run. He is a marionette, a tool in the hands of Lieberman and Deri. It is a combina of outside politicians trying to take Jerusalem by force. … I feel that I need to defend Jerusalem from those that want to manipulate the city for their own goals.”
Not only did Barkat use money, technology and rhetoric, after the elections it was revealed that Barkat had his own little combina going, promising a third mayoral candidate, the Orthodox Haim Epshtein, the place of deputy mayor if he remained in the race to divert some of the Ultra-Orthodox voters away from the big combina. While it might not have been savory, it’s an understandably astute maneuver that took advantage of the sharp divisions in Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox community. Although the results were frighteningly close, Barkat won the elections because the big combina collapsed. Neither Lieberman nor Deri could make good on all they were supposed to deliver. Veteran columnist Nahum Barnea commented that “residents who didn’t necessarily support Barkat, felt the artificiality and insincerity of Lieberman-Deri alliance. While they are close personal friends, the opinions of the sectors that they represent, do not mix, especially on a municipal level.” He said it was absurd to think that the Russian immigrant from Gilo, who wants a non-kosher butcher, entertainment and services on Saturday and secular education, would vote for the same candidate as the most extreme Orthodox voters from Mea Shearim. Lieberman and Deri also badly underestimated the rivalries between the Ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox and within the Ultra-Orthodox community itself. But it was close and Barkat’s faction lost seats on the city council, which will make his job even more challenging. Despite the welcome defeat of the combina, the results are nonetheless worrying. Barkat was issued, as blogger Nir Hasson called it, “a yellow warning card” by voters for prioritizing investment and resources for the Jerusalem of the future at the expense of the present. He would have justifiably won much more handily had Lieberman and Deri not hatched the combina. In the words of Yossi Verter of Ha’aretz, “only a breath of a hair separated the defeat of Leon, a bland, irrelevant candidate who does not belong and lacks any public stature and has the word peon written in shining letters on his forehead, from an upheaval which would have set back Jerusalem by many years.” In the end, Lieberman and Deri were the ones who were set back. With Lieberman’s not-guilty verdict handed down in November on charges of fraud and breach of trust, he and Deri (who was released from prison in 2002 after serving a three-year term on these same charges) will still play major roles in Israeli politics. I hope that their unsuccessful foray into municipal politics will deter them from future schemes like this. But from a glance at many other election results, there are more would-be Salah Shabbati’s out there to ensure that municipal elections in Israel might be even more lurid that national politics.
Born in America, Mylan Tanzer moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.