Now that we’ve all had a chance to take a deep breath and ignore the presidency, it’s time for retrospective reflection – for ditching conventional wisdom and group-think analyses.
No, this campaign wasn’t ugly and no it wasn’t worse than its idealized predecessors. There’s no denying that it wasn’t heartening but not for reasons which our self-acclaimed talking heads decree as the preeminent premise from which all other evaluations must depart.
The latest presidential contest differs by virtue of the very fact that it was more democratic than any previous one. No favorite sons were imposed by powerful political bosses. Anyone felt free to throw his/her hat in the ring, resulting in a wide array of candidates and a free-for-all. This is to our credit and not to our shame.
What was shameful, however, was that too many candidates were rotten candidates. Some were truly tainted by an inglorious past – to put it delicately. No “contracts” were taken out against them. If anything, it’s a badge of sociopolitical maturity that we no longer sweep suspicions about a candidate’s character under the rug.
Sunlight is the great sanitizer and it’s better to expose a candidate’s questionable conduct than later beat our breast for having kept politely mum. The criterion here shouldn’t be the presumption of innocence. Seekers of the highest public office should surmount the higher bar of ethical suitability rather than barely extricate themselves on legal technicalities from legal penalties.
But apparent skeletons in some closets weren’t the only downer of this campaign. Most candidates –and this applies only to those from the political milieu, who alone had a fighting chance – abysmally lacked gravitas. They were lightweights by every conceivable scale.
The office of president – ceremonial and representative as it is – demands in the very least someone with above-the-average vocabulary. That’s not asking too darn much. And this minimal requirement therefore basically left Reuven Rivlin as the only runner who could possibly qualify.
There was nothing unfair or sordid here. In the end the system vindicated itself and the Knesset members who elected our titular head of state did the sensible, logical thing by going for the people’s choice – the folksy-cum-erudite Rivlin.
He’s a principled man of ideas yet at the same time not aloof. He’s a mensch – a warm human being. Rivlin can wax ecstatic about a soccer win by his beloved Betar team or he can wax poetic about his beloved Jerusalem on any run-of-the-mill occasion. At heart, he blends a fair-minded liberality with a proud Jewish national ethos. Today it’s a rare combination but it wasn’t always so.
Given the choice of candidates, any other electoral result would have been a travesty. That’s not to say that many among us didn’t yearn for the travesty. According to the self-professed know-it-alls who zestfully bantered on the airwaves right after the first round, Rivlin was soundly defeated with 44 votes while Meir Sheetrit won a landslide with 31.
Sheetrit’s rise to the runoff was pronounced “a stunning upset.” Then gloating experts began eulogizing “poor Rubi” and glorifying the overnight star who trounced him. By their learned calculations, there was no way Rivlin could gather the additional votes needed while Sheetrit was sure to.
With years of political reporting behind me, I tried to get my head around their arithmetic but I kept coming up with different numbers.
All this carried me back to 1981 – the year in which the Likud and Labor battled it out in a general election for the first time after the upheaval in which Labor lost its seemingly impregnable decades-long hegemony (dating back to pre-state days). Many left-wing stalwarts regarded that as a historical error by the benighted citizenry, a glitch, an injustice. It was all going to be set right in 1981 when the world would be reinstated on its proper axis.
It was a tumultuous campaign and my reporting was less than appreciated by my bosses at the time. They openly hankered after results other than what my antennae detected. I wasn’t very welcome in the newsroom but that’s a whole saga in and of itself.
Nonetheless, on election night I was given a special corner office off the main newsroom and the editor brought over his own portable TV set for my use (which was a big deal in that lo-tech era). The straw polls indicated a Labor success and my colleagues roared with exultation. Victory was theirs and they were jubilant. No less euphoric scenes dominated the live TV newscast.
Hardly impartial anchors gleefully introduced Shimon Peres as the next prime minister. I was the newsroom spoilsport as I tried to caution my editor-in-chief and the managing editor that the exit polls might be off, especially as Likudniks are notorious for voting late. These words of warning weren’t well received.
Finally, mid-celebration on TV, someone whispered in the principal omniscient’s ear that the actual returns don’t quite mesh with the predictions…
Meanwhile back in the newsroom, we had to write the headline and my insistence on having it declare Menachem Begin the winner was shot down with undisguised hostility. We had several editions that long night, the last of which still told the readers that it was still “a seesaw,” that it’s still fluctuating, that it can still swing either way.
It’s hard to let go of wishful thinking.
So it was last Tuesday for the duration between the first and second rounds of the presidential vote in the Knesset. The tuned-in nation heard much buoyant banter among upbeat broadcasters, their in-house analysts and interviewees – all from the same side of the political divide (leftfield). All rejoiced in the triumph at hand – prematurely as it later emerged.
The initial cautionary note was sounded by an MK who had just voted and reported that the Rivlin pile of ballots was visibly smaller than Sheetrit’s, meaning that more votes were cast for the candidate whom the fair and balanced broadcasters didn’t quite favor.
These warning words were pooh-poohed and the on-air party continued. Nobody could see how Rivlin might even mange to tie with Sheetrit. When more and more MKs reported the shrinking Rivlin ballot stack, the word from the microphones was that it might be a “seesaw…”
Back to 1981. After the “seesaw” had finally come to a halt and the Likud was left in power, one of its new MKs asked that we meet.
Freshman parliamentarian Sheetrit invited me for an ice coffee at an eatery on Rehov Ibn Gvirol in Tel Aviv. He was adorable – not quite the adjective I’d choose to describe a politician but that’s how Sheetrit struck me with his mischievously twinkling blue eyes, sandy blonde hair and fetching irresistible grin. He was a looker and a charmer.
But then the real reason for the conversation emerged. Sheetrit was a cunning charmer and an unsophisticated opportunist.
He had heard from various hotshots at Likud headquarters in Metzudat Ze’ev that I knew the Jabotinsky Movement and its history. I was recommended as one who might enlighten him, clue him in. I was later to discover that I was just a link in a long chain of “recommended teachers” who kept passing the Sheetrit parcel – each of them looking for the next fall-guy or fall-gal.
Sheetrit openly told me that he had no inkling about “all that Revisionist nonsense” and didn’t care one iota for the ideology but that he had to gain rudimentary proficiency in some of the patter to be able to appeal to emotional Herut veterans. He poked fun at their singing solemnly about “both banks of the Jordan” and I corrected him on the Jabotinsky lyrics.
Thereafter, in numerous central committee meetings, I often heard Sheetrit singing “may my treasonous right hand forget its cunning if I forget the left of the Jordan.” Young Meir was a hit with the teary-eyed old-timers. Unlike most politicos, Sheetrit can carry a tune and he became the sentimental crooner who warned up many a tedious session.
But the lyrics were all I was willing to contribute to his synthetic political identity. I did continue to pass the parcel, though, and referred the personable Sheetrit to other potential teachers, among them former Jabotinsky aide and author, the late Shabtai Nadiv (whose brother Shmuel, a Betar activist, went down with the ill-fated Struma).
Nadiv later protested to me (in writing) about having sent him that “superficial pretender. Is this what we have come to? Is this our face? Is this our future? I shudder to think!”
This stern admonition haunted me as Sheetrit climbed the political ladder, switching parties, loyalties and creeds like a chameleon changes colors. When he jumped on Ariel Sharon’s Kadima bandwagon, it wasn’t for pure conviction either. Key Kadima movers-and-shakers attested that Sheetrit made the deal only after haggling about what portfolio he’d get in Sharon’s new cabinet.
Thankfully, though, by that time Sheetrit wasn’t pretending anymore. He relished politics sans-guiding-principles, where the protagonists “needn’t carry backpacks full of Berl Katznelson’s or Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s legacy.”
That underscored Nadiv’s reverberating question: “is this what we’ve come to?”
There’s a worthy lot to learn from Jabotinsky and Katznelson alike. I could have taught Sheetrit about the old Labor movement guru too. I am Katznelson’s ardent fan and believe that our society would have been a better one had we not forgotten his invaluable ideological bequest.
Yesteryear’s polemics, philosophies, values and elaborate schools of thought, which had come down to us from the founding fathers of both the Zionist Left and Zionist Right, shouldn’t be denigrated and tossed dismissively by the wayside. They should never be turned into laughing stock by self-promoting upstarts.
Something of that old Left still survives. It shone through in Shelly Yacimovich with whom I deeply disagree on our big national issues. But she – along with other Laborites and even a Meretz maverick (Ilan Gilon) – was unafraid to cross arbitrary party lines and come out publicly for the one candidate who deserved to be elected.
Old Shabtai Nadiv would surely agree that she is no “superficial pretender.” Kol Hakavod!