Thursday, October 06, 2016

 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column

Who’s afraid of the Minister of Sport and Culture?

Recently, as seems to happen on a regular basis, rumors spread about the Yitzhak Herzog’s Zionist Union (Labor + Tzipi Livni) party joining Netanyahu’s government. Supposedly there were negotiations over the Rosh Hashana holiday, and the deal was said to include eight ministerial portfolios for the center-left ZU, including the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Sport and Culture post that is currently held by the Likud’s Miri Regev.

Both sides denied it, which only means that if there were discussions they did not come to a conclusion – yet. Herzog pointed out that he couldn’t have been negotiating since he had spent the last four hours in the synagogue. Given that there are 24 hours in a day and several days that can reasonably be called the “holiday weekend,” this is a remarkably weak argument.

Last week Netanyahu asked some members of his cabinet how they would feel about adding the ZU. The ones who were present didn’t voice any objections, although Naftali Bennett of the Beit Yehudi party and Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu, who might be likely to object, weren’t there.

There were several different stories about how the portfolios would be distributed, but in all of them Regev gets a new job. One wonders why “Sport and Culture” is so important – one would think the Foreign Ministry is much more significant, and normally it would be. But there are two special circumstances: first, Netanyahu runs foreign policy himself no matter who the minister is (as Lieberman found out when he was FM in the previous government); and second, the ZU is really interested in putting an end to the culture war being waged against them by the tough-as-nails Regev. Moving her out is doubtless one of their conditions for a deal.

In Israel, most artistic and cultural activities – art, music, theater, film – get subsidies from the government. From before the founding of the state, these areas were dominated by the Left, specifically a narrow, politically extreme segment of the old Tel Aviv Ashkenazi elite. They get the grants, run the theater groups, make the films, write the reviews, teach the courses, and give each other the prizes. Although the Left’s Knesset representation has been on a steady decline since the historic victory of Menachem Begin in 1977, its control of the cultural establishment is still solid.

Current Israeli films tend to reflect the world-view of the artistic elite. Many are anti-war and even anti-Israeli; some are pro-Palestinian/anti-occupation, and those that are not explicitly political are often about deviance and dysfunctionality in Israeli society. Naturally, foreign audiences eat up anything negative about Israel, and they often win prizes at European film festivals; but they don’t do that well here outside of North Tel Aviv.

Regev is definitely not one of the elite, and doesn’t share their values. A former army spokesperson who achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the IDF and has a Master’s degree in business administration, she was born in “development town” Kiryat Gat to parents who immigrated from Morocco. The left-wing champions of tolerance who care so much for Arabs and illegal African migrants hate her passionately.

In several high-profile cases she used her position to withhold government funds – in one case to a theater that produced a play whose protagonist was a terrorist who committed a murder, in another to a group that would not perform in the territories. Recently, as the presenter of the Ophir Awards (Israel’s equivalent to the Oscars), she walked out of the auditorium after an Arab actor and rapper read a poem by Palestinian “national poet” Mahmoud Darwish that included the lines

But if I starve
I will eat my oppressor's flesh
Beware, beware of my starving
And my rage

Later, she returned and explained to the booing, rowdy audience that she intended to appoint a committee to “examine the management of the Israeli Academy of Film and Television as well as funding for films.”

Regev is pushing hard on the content of radio and television programs too. She feels that taxpayer money should not be used to support artistic endeavors that are anti-Israel. Her opponents insist that she is “anti-democratic” and “suppressing free speech,” to which she replies that they can speak all they want as long as the country isn’t paying for it. As you can probably guess, I’m on her side.

Although I have no inside knowledge of the discussions that may or may not be going on between Netanyahu and Herzog, I would guess that there are other ministers that the ZU would like to see sidelined. Both Naftali Bennett (Minister of Education) and Ayelet Shaked (Minister of Law), of the right-of-center Beit Hayehudi party, have consistently irked the establishments that have controlled their respective areas forever, just like the arts. In particular, Shaked wants to limit the power of the very activist, left-leaning Israeli Supreme Court.

What would Netanyahu gain from doing this? After bringing in Lieberman’s party, he has a coalition of 67, much better than the one-seat majority of 61 that he started with. One theory is that he expects Barack Obama to support  a coercive resolution in the UN Security Council, and he wants to head it off by establishing a “regional commission” with several Arab states in order to restart talks with the Palestinians. Bibi knows, says the theory, that some of the right-wing members of the government will quit if he talks about relinquishing territory, and so he wants to add a number of ZU people as a cushion for his majority.

This brings me to the main criticism that many people on the Right make against Netanyahu, that he is so focused on staying in power and so ideologically flexible as to lack any ideology – or any plan other than to improvise. There’s some truth in this, but on the other hand, his supporters may believe that the opposition is so dangerously naïve and incompetent that perhaps keeping him in power really is top priority.

Regev was one of the top vote-getters in the Likud primary, number 5 on their list, so whatever happens she will be a minister in the government if she wishes. But I admit that I will be very sorry if she doesn’t keep her position as the nemesis of the egotistical, narcissistic, decadent and not-as-talented-as-they-think cultural establishment.

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