By Jenni Frazer
Buried deep within a Cabinet communiqué from the Israeli prime minister’s press office lies the startling information that Israel has decided to unify two ministries in order to create the Intelligence Ministry. Double-take, jaw-dropping news. They HAVE one?
If its latest clod-hopping machinations are anything to go by, it’s not just an Intelligence Ministry that Israel needs. It’s an entire planet of intelligence.
For what country, in the middle of the toughest of tough neighbourhoods and in the tensest of delicate political times, would deliberately choose to introduce the Jewish state law, a piece of proposed legislation so toxic that the word “controversial” barely scratches the edges of what is wrong with it?
Unfortunately, that country is Israel. Or rather, it is the Israel presently led by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose appetite for treading on people’s toes would surely get him thrown out of Strictly Come Dancing.
Bibi’s cynical manipulation of the political situation has everything to do with his bid to break up the current coalition, and very little to do with the controversial content of the proposed law itself.
He set out its extreme views at a Cabinet meeting last week, eliciting screams of protest which could be heard through the closed door of the Cabinet room. His major targets were Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
After a convulsive one-on-one meeting with Lapid on Monday night, it became clear that Bibi’s real intention all along was to trigger the machinery for new elections.
Learning his skills from the souk, Bibi recognises that the way to achieve what you want is to present an impossible target. So he presented an impossible list of demands to Lapid, including insisting that he should give his backing to the Jewish state law bill, albeit a watered-down version.
Of course, Lapid said no, and thus Bibi gets to play the prime minister with his hands tied, oh, poor me, I’ve been pushed into calling new elections, I didn’t really want to, but that nasty Finance Minister made me.
So far, so typical of Bibi. But the interesting thing about the disaster of the Jewish state law – whose passing will almost certainly prevent Israel from being able to boast of being the only democracy in the Middle East – is the effect it has had on a member of Bibi’s own party, Likud. And that person is the new president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.
Mr Rivlin took over from Shimon Peres in July and we got a clue as to what Bibi felt about him when we heard that the prime minister was desperately trying to woo Eli Wiesel to stand as president in his stead.
President Rivlin, a dead ringer for Uncle Bulgaria out of the Wombles, had big shoes to fill; Shimon Peres, in his last great role serving the Jewish state, had effectively acted as the yin to Bibi’s yang, offering a civilised voice for Israel whenever Bibi said or did something really stupid (ie every other week).
But nobody, despite Bibi’s initial opposition, thought that President Rivlin would be doing the same thing. And yet: hooray for Rivlin, the voice of sense.
It was Rivlin who declared: “What is the point of this bill? Does this bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us? Into the very hands of those who wish to show that even among us, there are those who see contradiction between our being a free people in our land, and the freedoms of the non-Jewish communities in our midst?”
It was Rivlin who reminded Israelis, since they obviously need reminding, that those who had drawn up Israel’s Declaration of Independence had done so by insisting, “in their great wisdom, that the Arab public in Israel [should] not feel like the Jews felt in the diaspora.” In other words, second-class citizens.
And it was Rivlin who seriously uninvited singer Amir Benayoun from performing at an event at the President’s Residence, because of Benayoun’s new song, “Ahmad Loves Israel”, describing Israeli Arabs as “scum” and murderers.
We – and Bibi, for that matter – might have expected Shimon Peres to oppose the Jewish state law and chuck out Amir Benayoun. That would be his default position. But Rivlin?
Israel’s saving grace is that it continues to offer the unexpected, and just at the darkest and most desperate times provides the country with hope for a better future, for all its citizens.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the so-called Intelligence Ministry will live up to its name; and possibly, though more remotely, the prime minister will stop playing dangerous political games with Israel’s hard-won democratic character.