LIMA, Peru — Peru’s unlikeliest political alliance became one of its ugliest rivalries last spring, when relations between the Andean nation’s first lady and its most powerful television mogul erupted into a violent shouting match — all in Hebrew.
Eliane Karp and Baruch Ivcher, both former Israelis, had been among the leaders of the fight in the 1990s to topple longtime strongman Alberto Fujimori and restore democracy to South America’s fourth-largest country.
Not only did they secure their political goal, but they also achieved their personal ambitions. Karp became first lady when her husband, economist Alejandro Toledo, was elected president in 2001. Ivcher was then able to return from forced exile to regain control of his television station, the nation’s punchiest and most watched.
Their falling out began shortly before the election, when a teenager appeared on Ivcher’s television station and announced that she was Toledo’s illegitimate child. It nearly cost him the election, despite Fujimori’s overwhelming unpopularity.
Karp, who had demanded that Ivcher keep the child off the air, never forgave him. The two have been locked ever since in what one Toledo adviser called “a holy war.”
It exploded into public view April 27, at the Israeli Embassy’s annual Independence Day party in Lima.
Karp marched up to Ivcher and began shouting at him in Hebrew, calling him a “son of a bitch” and accusing him of using his station to smear her and her husband. As partygoers watched in astonishment, she wagged her finger and said, in Hebrew, “I am going to destroy you.”
The unlikely feud between the two expatriates sheds light on the outsized role of the nation’s tiny, 2,000-member Jewish community — most of which sympathize with neither of them and long for the relative stability of the erstwhile Fujimori regime.
Israeli-born Ivcher settled in Peru in the 1970s and became the nation’s biggest television mogul before being driven into exile in 1997 by then-president Fujimori. Karp, born in Paris, settled in Israel as a teenager and attended graduate school in California, where she met the Indian shoeshine-boy-turned-economist who would become her husband and Peru’s president.
Ivcher said little to Karp that day at the embassy party before others pulled her away. Recently, however, he said: “This woman needs medical assistance. She’s a very confused woman.”
Karp declined to be interviewed for this article, instead passing messages through Adam Pollak, a leading member of Peru’s Jewish community who is Toledo’s best friend and who is close to Karp. Pollak said Karp saw no gain in discussing Ivcher publicly.
“Eliane hates him,” said Pollak, who, on top of everything else, was Ivcher’s best friend before the falling out. “She considers Baruch not to be honest, that he is using his TV station only for scandal.”
Both Ivcher and Karp have a history of controversy.
In the early 1990s, Peru’s liberal intelligentsia scorned Ivcher because his Frecuencia Latina television station strongly backed Fujimori, even after the president abrogated the Constitution and shut down the Congress for six months in 1992. They then embraced Ivcher — albeit warily — when Frecuencia Latina reversed course, hired a crack investigative team and broadcast a series of reports that shook the Fujimori government to its core in 1996 to ’97.
Explaining his change of heart recently, Ivcher simply said, “I saw that something was wrong with the press in Peru.”
He added that the prime minister and the speaker of Congress tried to shut him up in January 1997 with a $19 million bribe and a promise of more money to follow, in exchange for the right to approve news program scripts. Ivcher said that he refused. “They could not buy my conscience.”
Videotapes of other television station owners accepting government bribes surfaced later. Still, given Ivcher’s previous record of slanting coverage to favor Fujimori, leading journalists didn’t believe he was suddenly championing press freedom for altruistic reasons.
“Something happened, although it’s not 100% clear what,” said Gustavo Gorriti, who once hosted a Frecuencia Latina news show and now edits a Lima newspaper. “His explanation is not wholly convincing to me.”
What is not in question is that Fujimori decided to banish Ivcher from Peru. In July 1997, the government stripped the Israeli-born mogul of his Peruvian citizenship, saying his 1984 naturalization documents could not be found. Ivcher was forced to relinquish control of his station to pro-Fujimori business partners, and he went into exile in Israel and Miami.
Meanwhile, Karp was playing an increasingly public role with Toledo in organizing huge 2000 street protests against the increasingly autocratic Fujimori regime.
Her courage and conviction won her admirers throughout Peru, but her unwillingness to play the traditional role of a docile wife angered others in the country’s macho culture.
During this time, Ivcher was pressing his case abroad to regain control of Frecuencia Latina — he hired Elliott Abrams to open doors in Washington — and rallying foreign opposition to Fujimori. Ivcher said he donated $350,000 to Toledo’s anti-Fujimori movement in 2000.
The Fujimori government finally collapsed under the weight of corruption charges in November 2000 and Fujimori fled to his ancestral Japan. The new authorities allowed Ivcher to return to Peru and to reclaim his station.
Shortly before the 2001 election, with Toledo headed to victory, 13-year-old Zarai Toledo appeared on Frecuencia Latina to say that the popular front-runner was her father, a claim that Toledo denied at the time.
Jaime Bayly, the program’s host, said he decided to interview Zarai without any input from Ivcher.
Eliane learned that Zarai would be appearing on the program shortly beforehand.
“She ordered me to close the program,” Ivcher said. “She didn’t like it. I told her that I fought for something I believed in — freedom of the press — and it doesn’t matter if I agree or not on the subject.”
Bayly confirmed that Ivcher did not try to intervene.
Toledo’s advisers fretted that Zarai’s statements would cost him the election.
Eliane, an adviser said, “couldn’t understand how [Ivcher] could allow that given that they had fought together.”
After Toledo won narrowly, Karp let it be known that she considered Ivcher an enemy of the new government.
Ivcher maintained contact with Toledo, largely in pursuit of compensation for $62 million that he said his station lost when Fujimori’s allies controlled it. Toledo replied that he would not intervene in the judicial system on his behalf, Ivcher said in a 2002 interview.
In the months that followed, a Sunday night Frecuencia Latina news magazine show, “The Indiscreet Window,” broadcast an expose on the Toledo government or on Karp practically every week.
Enrique Zileri, owner of Caretas, Peru’s pre-eminent weekly newsmagazine, praised some of the reports, but he said that others clearly overreached. He singled out one report that accused Karp of exerting undue influence over the government Indian affairs agency and of mismanaging the agency’s money. “It was a half-baked exposé,” Zileri said.
Ivcher and Karp had had no contact since the 2001 election, when she spied him at the 2004 Israeli Independence Day party at the home of Lima businessman Isaac Galsky. Photographs published by Zileri’s magazine captured his surprise when she confronted him.
Along with insulting Ivcher, Karp said, “You’re not going to get your $40 million,” an apparent allusion to the money that Ivcher was believed to be seeking for the government. (He recently said the actual figure is no more than $6 million.)
Ivcher said he sent a strongly worded note of complaint to Toledo that night. The president invited him over the following night, and they talked past midnight. “He was uncomfortable with what his wife said,” Ivcher said, declining to discuss other details. He added that he and Toledo have not spoken since.
The spat has gained Ivcher an implacable foe in Adam Pollak, who immigrated to Peru from Romania in 1965 and befriended Ivcher when he arrived from Israel in the mid-1970s.
“If he needs something, he’s with you,” Pollak said. “If he doesn’t, he’s against you. He’s a guy you cannot trust. I don’t want to see him anymore.”
When this correspondent read these comments to Ivcher, he took a deep breath — almost as if he had been punched in the stomach. He waited several moments before speaking. “Adam Pollak was my best friend,” he said finally. “I’m shocked [at his comments], really shocked.”
Ivcher went on to say that the government tax agency recently put a lien on his building for a debt incurred by the former partners who took over the station after he was exiled.
“This is the answer of a democratic government to the editorial line of this channel,” Ivcher said. “This is exactly the same or worse than what Fujimori did to this channel. I think Adam Pollak is behind this.”
Pollak denied this and said that Ivcher is behind a recent report on “The Indiscreet Window” that accused him of scoring a juicy government contract thanks to his friendship with Toledo.
“Ivcher is trying to destroy the government,” Pollak said. “He [Ivcher] tried to squeeze Alejandro [Toledo] to get money from the Peruvian government. But Alejandro wouldn’t play his game. He is using his TV station for his personal interests.”
First Lady’s Comments Damage Her Approval Rating
On Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo’s second day, first lady Eliane Karp shared a stage with him at an Inca monument in the Andes, and they sang traditional songs of Peru’s highland Indians before a crowd of thousands.
There have been few joyful days for Karp since then. She has been unwilling to play the traditional role of the submissive first lady. Instead, she has made a series of controversial comments that have made her the country’s most unpopular person.
A poll earlier this year put her approval rating at only 5%, partly reflecting her husband’s unpopularity. (His approval rating is only 11% after a series of missteps.)
Karp even suffered the indignity of getting pelted by rotten eggs and vegetables during a visit to Cuzco earlier this year. That must have been especially disappointing, since she has said she feels most at home in Cuzco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire.
Karp was born in Paris — her father was part of the French Resistance — and was reared in France and Belgium. A member of the Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatza’ir, she moved to an Israeli kibbutz as a teenager and then attended Hebrew University, majoring in anthropology. She met Toledo at Stanford University in 1975, when both were pursuing master’s degrees in economics. Toledo was a penniless student — one of 16 children, nine of whom survived infancy. They were married in 1979, despite the objections of Karp’s family.
Karp fell in love with Peru when Toledo brought her there. She has particularly identified with Peru’s downtrodden Indians, learning the Quechua language while working in the mountains.
During much of the couple’s life together, Karp divided her years between Lima, where she worked in rural development, and Tel Aviv, where she held positions with Bank Leumi. She has said in interviews that her main goal in dividing her life was to ensure that their daughter was fluent in Hebrew and that she felt at home as a Jew and an Israeli. Toledo is known among international diplomats for peppering his conversation with Yiddishisms and with Hebrew phrases.
Since Toledo became president, Karp has complained bitterly that the press has mistreated her and her husband, ignoring his accomplishments to invent political food fights. But she has done her share to produce unwelcome headlines.
She has offended the Catholic Church (for saying that condoms protect lives and to think otherwise is ridiculous), former President Alan Garcia (for saying that the press ought to report more on allegations that he stole millions and was a womanizer) and reporters (for calling them scandalmongers).
Toledo has had to disassociate himself from some of her comments. She has said she doesn’t mind, that it is understandable that they don’t always see eye to eye given their different backgrounds.
“Eliane is very intelligent,” said Adam Pollak, a Lima businessman who is close with her and her husband. “Her problem is her character. She’s not diplomatic. She says what she thinks. She doesn’t take s—t from anybody.”