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The Blame Game

Caught with his pants down, Israel’s president pleads prejudice

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Israeli President Moshe Katsav
Moshe Katsav defends himself at a press conference in January.

In Israel, a country where victimhood is a badge of honor, just about every ethnic or religious group—Arab, Ethiopian, Russian, Mizrahi, ultra-Orthodox—is convinced that it’s been screwed over and that society “owes” it. These feelings aren’t necessarily false, of course, but sometimes it’s hard not to get the sense that life here is one big competition, in which all Israelis are proudly vying for the title of “Victim No. 1.”

The latest contender is a bona fide heavyweight: the state’s president, Moshe Katsav. Katsav, 61, has been under intense scrutiny since July, when suspicions surfaced that he had sexually harassed a onetime employee at his official residence in Jerusalem. Once this woman came forward with a rape complaint, another 10 women were reported to have lined up at the police station to claim that they, too, had been victims of Katsav’s advances. Some of the accusations predate his six years as president. Yet, in spite of the grave accusations now directed at him, it is Katsav who insists that he is the wronged party, and in his defense he insinuates he’s being persecuted because of his Mizrahi origins.

On January 24, the day after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced his intention to indict the president, Katsav delivered an address nearly an hour long, covered live by all local media. He categorically denied everything, and vowed that until “my dying breath” he would fight a “world war, if necessary” to establish his innocence. Most of his 50-minute performance consisted of a frontal attack on the media: an “elitist clique of bloated egos, born with silver spoons in their mouths,” who, he claimed, had conspired with the police to frame him ever since his election to the presidency in 2000.

To observers overseas, Katsav’s words may sound bizarre. He was speaking in code, but delivering a message every Israeli understands. A desperate man, he was playing a kind of “race card,” or, as the Hebrew phrase has it, in translation, he was “letting the ethnic genie out of the bottle.”

The Iranian-born Katsav’s argument is that a homogenous (read: Ashkenazi) media had set him as its target because he had gotten uppity. He had defied all expectations seven years ago, when he was chosen by the Knesset over Shimon Peres for president, and is still smarting from an otherwise forgettable Jerusalem Post column which declared that his election foretold “the end of Zionism.”

In truth, Katsav could be seen as the embodiment of the Zionist dream, an Israeli version of a Horatio Alger character. His family arrived in the young state in 1951, when he was five, spending their first years in one of the makeshift transit camps used to house the many immigrants from Muslim lands whose arrival helped double the country’s population during the 1950s. Kastina, their tent camp southeast of Tel Aviv, was flooded during their first winter, and Moshe’s two-month-old brother died.

Defying the odds, the ambitious Katsav earned a bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University, and at age 24, returned to become mayor of Kiryat Malakhi, the town that had been built on the site of the Kastina camp. Eight years later, having worked his way up in the Likud, he was elected to the Knesset, and at 38, he became the youngest man ever appointed a government minister, in this case at the ministry of Labor and Welfare. Over the next two decades, Katsav went on to serve as minister of transportation under Yitzhak Shamir, and then under Benjamin Netanyahu, as both tourism minister and as deputy prime minister.

Katsav’s appeal has been his blandness. Most voters would be hard-pressed to recount his political initiatives. Rather, he has projected a modest dignity, a welcome contrast to so many aggressively obnoxious political figures. Katsav’s arrival after the noisy presidential tenure of the late Ezer Weizman—which ended with Weizman’s own early resignation—provided a timely respite.

Since the sex charges, however, another version of Katsav has emerged. Journalists and fellow politicians now acknowledge that they had known for years that Katsav was a serial womanizer, that behind the calm façade was a disappointingly typical pol, who got far not through hard work but through deal-making.

Katsav is hardly the first politician to attempt to exploit feelings of discrimination among the country’s Mizrahi majority, comprised of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants. Menachem Begin, Israel’s Polish-born sixth prime minister, brought three decades of Labor rule to an end in 1977 by appealing to the anger and frustration of working class voters, largely of Mizrahi origin, who felt that the country’s Ashkenazi founders had used and abused them. Four years later, in his reelection campaign, Begin masterfully seized on the use of an epithet for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, tchakh-tchakim, (roughly translated as “riff-raff” or “thugs”) by a Labor campaigner, manipulating the slur to further ingratiate himself with the underclass.

More recently, when Benjamin Netanyahu, no more Mizrahi in background than Begin, stood for reelection in 1999, he played similar rhetorical games, claiming that rival Labor party members remained the “same condescending elitists,” whereas he was “proud to be part of the rabble.” But Netanyahu’s was a hail-Mary ploy, and the electorate rejected him in favor of Ehud Barak. For his part, Barak had famously appealed to Mizrahi voters by holding the 1997 party convention in Netivot, a Southern development town whose residents mostly came from Morocco and Tunisia. There he announced his desire, “in my name and the name of the Labor Party,” to “ask forgiveness from those who were caused . . . suffering.”

Israel’s current crop of politicians are hardly morally superior to their predecessors, but ethnic demagoguery no longer has the same effect. That’s why Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born current chair of Labor, was able to defeat none other than Shimon Peres for the party leadership last year, even while very consciously refusing to make his background part of the campaign. When he became Labor’s candidate for prime minister, in 2006, he declared, “Today we are euthanizing the ethnic genie.”

A year later, the public has repudiated Peretz as defense minister and Labor is preparing to replace him as its head. Yet no one in his camp has the nerve to suggest that he is the victim of ethnic prejudice. He is the victim of his own incompetence and his refusal to acknowledge it.

Israel still has a permanent underclass, and it is largely Mizrahi in background. The gap between the affluent and the impoverished is growing, even as the country increasingly prospers. But these days, the source of the problem is social and economic, not ethnic, at least for the Jewish (as opposed to Arab) population. If Katsav, who throughout his political career maintained an outwardly dignified appearance, is now publicly claiming that he’s the victim of prejudice, it’s a sign of desperation. Regardless, it will not be the public that determines his fate, but the attorney general.

After last month’s successful prosecution of the former justice minister on sexual harassment charges, Menachem Mazuz is being touted as Israel’s most powerful man. Not only has he put Katsav on the defensive, but it is he who’ll decide in the coming months whether to file a criminal indictment against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under investigation on several matters.

A cursory look at Mazuz’s background provides a rejoinder to Katsav. Mazuz was born in Djerba, Tunisia, the son of a rabbi. In 1956, when he was one, his family arrived in Israel and was plunked down in Azata, another transit camp, which eventually became the development town of Netivot, the same town where Barak offered a mea culpa on behalf of Ashkenazim to his Mizrahi countrymen a decade ago. It is more remote than Kiryat Malakhi, and remains an impoverished, disadvantaged community. Now, Netivot’s most famous son will determine the fate of the one-time pride of Kiryat Malakhi. It is hard to imagine Moshe Katsav is now much more than a source of embarrassment in his hometown, compounding his own misdeeds with a misguided attempt to transfer blame from himself to a faded bogeyman.

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The Blame Game

Caught with his pants down, Israel’s president pleads prejudice

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