Australia/Israel Review

Former firebrand gets burned

Nov 23, 2010 | Amotz Asa-El

By Amotz Asa-El

On the face of it, he was but another one among dozens of second-generation lawmakers who have checkered Israeli politics in recent decades, from Benny Begin, Omri Sharon, and Tzipi Livni to Isaac Herzog, Yael Dayan and Ehud Olmert. Yet the Knesset’s outgoing Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi – whose promising 22-year parliamentary career has just been derailed following a perjury conviction – was different.

Unlike almost everyone else in what passes for political nobility in Israel, Hanegbi started off as a street fighter of sorts, a rabble rouser who loved confrontation, whether with riot police, leftist activists, or Arab students at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University campus. Most memorably, during the 1982 retreat from the Sinai, he and several friends climbed a monument tower and then surrounded themselves with barbed wire and munitions. For several well-televised days, they refused the army’s demand that they evacuate along with the region’s thousands of settlers so that the land under them could be handed over to Egypt as agreed in the Camp David peace accord.

Though eventually persuaded by the responsible army commander to climb down, Hanegbi remained throughout his twenties the same kind of firebrand as his mother, Likud co-founder Geula Cohen, a former fighter and radio announcer for the anti-British Lehi underground. Even after earning a law degree and making a gradual transition to political respectability, first as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s bureau chief and then, at 31, as a legislator, Hanegbi seemed most comfortable as a demonstrator. On one occasion, he disrupted a speech by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with a loudspeaker over which he reproduced an older speech by Rabin in which he had promised not to retreat from the Golan Heights.

As long as they were whimsical, Hanegbi’s publicity stunts angered some and entertained others, but were generally harmless. The problem was that he occasionally also skated on thin legal ice. As a student, his involvement in a brawl cost him a suspended jail term; as a backbencher he allegedly used his position in a road-safety NGO for private perks; and as a cabinet minister, he was indicted for making serial political appointments in the civil service.

Hanegbi managed to survive these and other affairs and scandals, and at the same time climb up the political ladder, gradually replacing his original image as a juvenile prankster with that of a poised, balanced, and pragmatic power broker. Having become a minister at age 39, Hanegbi served over the next eight years in the roles of minister of health, environment, justice, internal security, and transport. The more he participated in cabinet sessions the more he earned the respect of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who saw in him a potential future prime minister.

Hanegbi’s new flexibility was put to the test in 2005. At first, when Ariel Sharon unveiled his plan to withdraw from Gaza, Hanegbi opposed it, momentarily reminding some of the rebellious days when Hanegbi’s trademark jeans, sandals, and long black curls had yet to give way to well-tailored suits, fashionable ties, and a middle-aged, balding man’s crew cut. Then, however, a month after Ariel Sharon established Kadima, Hanegbi joined him, thus throwing in his lot with a party that not only backed, but also actively sought, Palestinian statehood.

Hanegbi’s personal journey from the right to the centre was overshadowed by the even more dramatic ideological transfigurations undergone by Sharon and Shimon Peres. Still, for those who took it at face value, Hanegbi’s new stripes represented a deeper transition among a newly disillusioned middle class which was increasingly treating the Arab-Israeli conflict less ideologically, and more pragmatically.

Others, however, saw in Hanegbi’s relocation less political epiphany and more personal gain. Having decided to make his move just when police were about to launch an investigation of his political appointments, many thought Hanegbi never really abandoned the hard-line uncompromising political convictions on which he was raised, but figured he cynically sought a softer public image in order to better withstand the legal battles that awaited him.

Whatever his calculations, five years after being indicted, Hanegbi was indeed acquitted. The Jerusalem Magistrates Court found nothing illegal about his addition of 50 political loyalists to the Environment Ministry’s 500 professional employees. However, the court convicted Hanegbi of lying to the Central Elections Committee Chairman when he denied involvement in concocting an ad that called on Likud members to reward Hanegbi for his political appointments. “A lie is a lie,” the court ruled, and as such, also involved “turpitude”. Under Israeli law, that meant that Hanegbi’s membership in the Knesset must be immediately suspended.

Hanegbi emerges from the ruling politically wounded but alive. Though he has lost any chance of ever becoming prime minister, the court’s failure to give him a jail sentence means Hanegbi can run for the next Knesset and possibly return to a cabinet position.

Still, the verdict complicates the political scene.

Having been a protégé of Netanyahu’s in the 1990s and of Sharon’s in the following decade, Hanegbi became the major go-between through whom Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Netanyahu regularly communicated. In addition, Hanegbi was the most effective supporter within the opposition Kadima party for joining Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Having been pushed overboard, at least temporarily, Hanegbi has less reason to prod his party to join a coalition where he will not be able to assume any formal position.

Moreover, Kadima’s image problem as an assembly of opportunists has only gotten worse in the wake of Hanegbi’s situation.

Having lost its founder Ariel Sharon a mere few weeks after the party’s establishment due to his illness, Kadima has since lost also Shimon Peres, who became president, and Ehud Olmert, who became entangled in corruption allegations, as have former Finance Minister Avraham Hirshson and former Justice Minister Haim Ramon. Now Hanegbi’s situation not only further identifies Kadima with corruption, it leaves it even more orphaned than it already was. The vacuum created by Hanegbi’s suspension became evident when the party’s number two, former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, announced soon after the court ruling that he would challenge Livni for the party’s leadership.

A peculiar, but telling, aspect of the Hanegbi Affair is the position he has vacated.

Of all the Knesset’s assorted committees, none once rivalled the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee in prestige. It has been populated over the decades by dozens of retired generals including former chiefs of staff, and chaired at various times by figures as large as Abba Eban. However, the committee’s political weight changed two years ago when the current governing coalition chose to hand its chairmanship to the opposition, in return for chairmanship of the Economics Committee, which had been traditionally held by the opposition.

This arrangement, which allowed Hanegbi to retain the committee chair he held while his legal situation prevented him from serving in Ehud Olmert’s cabinet in the previous government, was seen by many as politically awkward. The subcommittees within the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee oversee the most sensitive actions of the Israeli military and secret services, as well as its nuclear program. It was meant to include a varied membership, but also to be chaired, as are its equivalents elsewhere in the free world, by a lawmaker who identifies with the government.

Still, as with so many things throughout Hanegbi’s eventful political career, with him around things took an unexpected course – in this case reflecting his special role as a personal bridge between the governing coalition and main opposition Kadima party.

Now, as Hanegbi bids it fare well, the committee’s role is changing again.

In Israel’s rapidly maturing economy, it turns out, both sides of the house simply prefer to chair the Economics Committee whose agenda ranges from regulation of competition in the cellular and cable-TV industries to taxation of mining companies. It may be a lot less glamorous than military and diplomatic affairs, but this forum’s deliberations have become much more relevant to the broad public’s daily life, and therefore a much more effective tool for middle-of-the road politicians to become known to the mainstream public.

Consequently, Hanegbi’s unplanned political departure has unwittingly offered a telling reminder that the Middle East conflict is losing its historic status as the main axis around which Israeli politics revolves.



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