early morning, may 18, 1999
rabin square, tel aviv, post election day
abraham, isaac, moses, david, solomon, assyria, babylonia, talmud, koran, mohammed, north africa, moors, spain, sephardim, france, italy, germany, poland, ashkenazi, russia, diaspora, america, palestine, israel -- everything exists and comes back to this "fertile crescent, this holy land, this cradle of civilization". no wonder everyone makes claim to it. no wonder blood continues to be shed over it. neighbor against neighbor. brother against brother. in the name of god. in the name of country. in the name of greed. in the name of - you name it. i thought los angeles was a problematic, ethnically fractured city, a powder keg waiting to explode. well, not compared to this little piece of land. it - and the balkans - sparks waiting to ignite the passions of the world…
so -- the momentous day is finally here. for the entire two weeks i've been in israel, this monday has been looming large in the nation's consciousness. just two days ago, the centrist party's candidate, mordechai, has withdrawn from the race, leaving just the two big boys left in the race. the incumbent, bibi netanyahu, and the challenger, ehud barak. now with the third party out, the election can actually be decided today, without the previously expected run-off between the top two vote getters. there's a lot at stake - obviously - not only for the future of israel and her immediate neighbors, but also for the mideast peace process. consequently, the entire world has focused its microscopic attention on this tiny piece of property no bigger than rhode island, and today you can feel it all come to a head, as reporters, news vans, and the general population are all abuzz in anticipation.
as divided and complicated as israeli politics are, it's hard for an outsider to speak with any authority. this place is a far cry from the blasé, cynical electorate of america. i can't have helped but notice the intensity of the feelings about the candidates. everyone has an opinion - and not a gentle one. i see campaign posters everywhere with bibi's face blacked or scratched out. i'm told that the prime minister has lied, disappointed, and frustrated the israeli people. his hard line conservatism has not advanced the peace process, nor won the sympathies of his allies, enemies, or countrymen. the atmosphere of tel aviv is charged, people are turning out at the polls, and they want - change. and in this city, at this time, change means ehud barak.
i spend the day with dan katzir, my documentary filmmaker friend. we drive around and dan shoots his renegade impressions of election day, ricky leacock style:
angle - two young israeli boys try to wrap a sixty foot netanyahu banner around two resistant polls at the dizengoff center; the wind blows, the banner rips through the air like a runaway sail in a storm, and bibi's smiling face never makes it over king george street.
angle - another bibi sign fills the frame, as hordes of busy tel avivans rush by. finally two old ladies look at it, smile, and sit down on a bench next to it. metaphor: the present rushes indifferently by netanyahu, the past sits limply underneath.
angle - an old street musician scratches a not very melodious yiddish tune on his wizened violin; a new white van hurtles by blaring barak's campaign propaganda; pan up to a large sign indicating the outcome of today's contest: "change".
and so now it's 3:30 in the morning in rabin square. about half a million joyous israelis of all ages (although mostly of the left persuasion) have come to the site of the ignominious assassination of their former peace-loving leader to celebrate the victory of one of his chosen disciples, ehud barak. bibi netanyahu has already given his concession speech three hours earlier in staid, tightly-wrapped jerusalem, and a just few kilometers, but light years away, tel aviv has erupted in one gigantic street party. the eyes of the world are on this microcosm, the good guys have won. the energy is electric. the mood ecstatically optimistic.
but now it's approaching dawn, and some of the crowd has gotten more than a little impatient. where is the victorious prime minister elect? we've seen him on the news talking with bill clinton, al gore, yasser arafat. fine. he's a good politician. the world wants to congratulate him, share his quixotic promise of peace. but why isn't he here? talking to his countrymen? his constituents, the people who worked so hard for him, showed up at the polls and voted for him? they’re all here just asking for a sign from their god-hero-savior-messiah of the moment to – celebrate.
and then finally, barak arrives at the scene of the victory euphoria. he steps to the podium with leah rabin, rabin’s widow, and shimon peres, the nobel peace prize winner, at his side. but he doesn’t smile. he doesn’t exult. no richard nixon “v”s for victory waving in the air. the crowd is sobered to attention, wondering why he won’t show at least a little emotion to this starving-for-emotion crowd? at least a little joy? yes, we know the road is long in front of us (sorry, not me, they know). yes, they know the arduous work of assembling a new government begins first thing tomorrow morning. that the painful compromise towards peace will not be easy. but what about now? this moment? this victory?
barak disappoints us (yes, even me). he's too stoic. too military. we want to party. congratulate ourselves - and the man who promises to realize the work of his fallen mentor. but barak is so tight-lipped and dispassionate that he doesn't even allow leah rabin or shimon peres, his two crucial campaign allies, to address the hungry, but thinning, crowd.
well -- you don't always get what you want, we tell ourselves, but if you try sometime, you get... what you need. barak? we wonder. and as the deflated throng disperses after our king for the day is whisked off into the early morning light, the first signs of doubt and fear begin to reappear on the long-suffering israeli faces.