Israeli journalist in Closter shares wit, political insights

Israeli journalist in Closter shares wit, political insights

What unites the United States and Israel? What divides? These were the questions tackled by Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst at the Jerusalem Post, in a talk at Temple Emanu-El in Closter on May 6.

Hoffman painted a picture of a country of great diversity, sitting on bedrock of great unity, and able to poke fun at itself.

Hoffman, who was wrapping up a 28-day speaking tour in the U.S., brings a unique perspective to his reporting. He seems to thrive in environments where politics is a participatory sport and scandal is not unknown – his native Chicago, with a de facto one-party (Democratic) system, and Israel, where 33 parties slugged it out in the recent election.

He opened on a light note.

“Ten years ago, I made aliyah from Chicago. Politics there was just too clean for me,” he said, in a good-natured jab at the city of his birth and at Israel.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is going to be the next senator from Illinois, he joked. “Olmert put in the highest bid,” Hoffman said, a reference to charges that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had sought a payoff to name someone to President Barak Obama’s former Senate seat.

Speaking of candidate visits to Israel, “Sarah Palin would be comfortable,” he said. “There are a lot of women with guns… Sorry, Sarah, no moose.”

Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post, speaks at Temple Emanu-El in Closter. Charles Zusman

He acknowledged that it isn’t fair to pick on a Republican and not a Democrat, so: “Joe Biden came to Israel a couple of years ago to deliver a very important speech, and it should be over any minute now.”

Then Hoffman turned on his serious side. He said that the politicking leading up to the Feb. 10 Knesset election was shallow, with bickering and charges flying. But then the Gaza fighting erupted, and “during a war, everyone in Israel unites, everyone comes together.”

When the fighting ended, only three weeks were left until the election, leaving a short time for the 33 parties to fight it out.

The vote outcome was close, and Hoffman showed a copy of the newspaper Ma’ariv, with half the front page showing Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party as the winner. Flipped over, the other half of the page proclaimed Tsipi Livni of the Kadima Party the winner.

Ultimately, although Kadima garnered the most votes, Livni failed to form a coalition and President Shimon Peres chose Netanyahu to form a government and serve as prime minister.

Hoffman noted threats facing Israel on the security front, from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, and at home on the economic front.

“We’re a very divided people in Israel,” Hoffman said. He reeled off the segments of the population: Ashkenazi and Sephardi; Bedouin, Christian, Muslim, and Druze; ultra-Orthodox and ultra-conservative; and “everywhere in between.”

“The one thing that all Israelis seem to have in common is that they, and only they, have all the answers to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said,

“Sometimes I say thank God for [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” he said. “The president of Iran unites the people of Israel, unites us in fear, but unites us nonetheless.”

Israeli eyes are focused on the June 12 Iranian election presidential election, he said. “We hope Iran elects a president who cares more about feeding his people than about destroying Israel,” he said, citing economic woes in Iran.

“But we in Israel can’t rely on our enemies to self-destruct,” he said. “We have to rely on ourselves. We hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

“That’s what my friends in the Israel air force are doing,” he said.

But there is hope on the diplomatic front, he said, and the fact that Obama has doors open to him around the world that his predecessor didn’t have “is very important to Israel’s future.”

Hoffman said although Obama prefers diplomacy, he has not ruled out other measures. Netanyahu talks about the “economic stick,” a full blockade against Iran, perhaps. The third option is a military attack.

Hoffman said that Netanyahu will privately push for Obama to set a deadline for Iran to stop nuclear development and to name an envoy to deal specifically with the issue.

He dismissed the notion that an Obama-Netanyahu clash is inevitable. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. This fear is a holdover from the administration of former president Bill Clinton, a critic of Netanyahu.

Hoffman said the Israeli view of U.S. actions has fluctuated between dread and hope, but now there is cause to be upbeat. He noted that candidate Obama did more to reach out to Israel than any other candidate ever did, going so far as to post a blog in Hebrew.

On the Palestinian issue, Hoffman said, Netanyahu takes a “bottom up” approach, helping Palestinians economically on a grassroots level, not dealing with the leaders who “failed” them. That should jibe with Obama policies, said Hoffman, who noted the American president is “Mr. Grassroots.”

Obama talks about two states for two people. Hoffman said, while “Netanyahu talks about something less than that. He talks about a Palestinian state ‘minus.'”

“He would insist on reciprocity,” Hoffman said. Not mentioning a “Palestinian state” is a tactical move by Netanyahu. “He won’t use the words Palestinian state until they use the words Jewish state,” Hoffman said. “He’s not going to withdraw for free.”

In the past, Netanyahu was the pessimist, while others saw movement towards peace. That’s changed, Hoffman said, with Netanyahu now the optimist for peace.

On the Palestinian side, Hoffman said it’s noteworthy that outside of Gaza there was little protest over the fighting there and there was Arab sentiment for Hamas to lose.

He said Palestinians living in the west bank are faring much better since Israel stepped up its security role there in 2002. Unemployment has dropped from 31 percent then to 16 percent in 2008.

In response to a question from the audience, Hoffman said that Netanyahu will insist on keeping areas key to security and sites holy to Jews.

Speaking of Israeli political personalities, Hoffman said foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, from the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, makes Netanyahu look like a dove, but that’s an important function. Lieberman capitalized on his populist message during the Gaza fighting. Now, in the foreign ministry post, “he can do the least damage.”

There is another way of looking at Lieberman, Hoffman suggested, saying he is not the hawk people make him out to be. He is on record as favoring a Palestinian accord on land, Hoffman noted.

Hoffman hailed the selection of Ehud Barak as defense minister, noting that he and Netanyahu have a shared military experience and work closely together. “Hopefully the two of them together will help Israel to land on solid ground without too many casualties.”

On the public relations front, Hoffman said Israel is doing a much better job of defending its actions than in the past. In its early years, it was seen as the underdog. Then, after its victory in 1967 it was viewed as the powerhouse in the Mideast. Now it is seen in a more favorable light.

While the American print media are undergoing a rocky time, the Israeli press has no such problems, with thriving newspapers in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Russian, Hoffman said,

“There is a voracious appetite for news in Israel,” he said. “Newspapers are a rough draft on history, which the Internet can never be,” he said. “Besides, we need a paper that we can read on Shabbat. You can’t do that on the Internet.”

On how American Jews can help Israel, it’s EASY, he said: Engage in “Education, Advocacy, Solidarity, and give Your money.”

Would his sometimes humorous slant on the affairs of state, which got laughs from the Closter audience, go over as well in Israel where troubles are closer to home?

“Even more so,” said Hoffman. “Israelis have a great sense of humor.”

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