Gabi, the Baby Elephant, and Israel’s Political Zoo

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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Just think of it: creatures treading in excrement, sniffing at each other’s behinds and slinging mud at each other, occasionally sticking their long noses into matters they don’t understand — all while the crowd stands outside the arena, intently watching and incessantly making comments but having no impact whatsoever. Now, isn’t that the quintessence of politics, in Israel perhaps more than anywhere else?

It is — but pachydermal politics are more refined. Look at the elephant yard. What you see is what you get: full transparency. True, sometimes the animals go back into their lair, but rest assured they act the same behind closed doors as they do in front of the public. How different from the conduct of politicians in Israel, and, I guess, elsewhere.

Prime Minister Sharon was hospitalized last week in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem after he suffered a stroke. A media fest orchestrated by his advisers, which included leaks that “Sharon is joking with his doctors,” left Israelis in the dark about the true state of health of a man who is not only running the government but also has nearly single-handedly upended the political scene twice this year and who in all likelihood will continue to hold much of the country’s future in his hands. By the time he was released, it was hard to tell if the hospital was being staffed with spin doctors or the medical types.

And the elephantine parallels continue. A hungry Gabi made headlines when he tried to suckle on the teats of a female elephant other than his mother. An innocent mistake, to be sure. But a number of leading politicians, few of whom now head parties in Israel, have succumbed to the same urge of suckling the political teats of whoever happens to be around.

There’s Shimon Peres, who defected from Labor after decades in the party in order to join Sharon’s Kadima. Having been unable to win even a single election in his long career, Peres is nevertheless clinging to power with all his might.

And then there’s Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who adamantly denied the rumors that he was going to join Kadima. “I’ll never leave the Likud!” he declared earlier this month in front of the cameras, forgetting that President Clinton was crucified not for allegedly having sexual relations with “that woman,” but for lying on live television. The day after, Mofaz, without batting an eyelash, jumped on Sharon’s wagon. Letters that he had sent out reiterating his commitment to Likud reached his supporters after he announced that he had broken his vow.

So how could Israelis’ hearts not go out to the naiveté of Gabi? Between the real zoo and its political double, my guess is that most of my fellow countrymen prefer the original.

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