Tapes spice Israeli politics, even if they never existed

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 16, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Israeli politics are like a major spectator sport here, and the latest wrinkle in the popular entertainment is the taped playback.

Tapes, both real and unreal, have embroiled two Israeli politicians in controversies providing public heat and entertainment. By their positions, the two figures are unlikely candidates for these unseemly affairs: one is a religious spiritual leader, the other is the top candidate to lead the major opposition party.

The spiritual leader is the chief rabbi of the Shas religious party, Ovadia Yosef. The religious parties in Israel are bitter enemies with the secular liberal Meretz Party, and their discomfort has grown with the coalition formed in July that finds Meretz and Shas in the same government.

They have quarreled over everything from sunbathing on Yom Kippur to the kosherness of the menu of a Meretz minister on a trip to Europe.

That minister is Shulamit Aloni, a liberal warhorse who manages to evoke rage among the religious. Rabbi Yosef demonstrated ** that in a 2-year-old tape of remarks about his political opponents.

The tape was a secretly made recording of a lecture he gave to supporters, and this month some apparently disgruntled followers made it public. He was heard on the tape making unkind comments.

"Each household will declare a celebration and eat a feast the day that wicked woman Shulamit Aloni dies," he said on the tape.

On a second tape that emerged a few days later, he dismissed a co-religious party as trash "that can be dumped in a garbage can" and the now-ruling Labor Party as "wicked evildoers."

His supporters explained weakly, "The rabbi speaks differently to different groups. If he addresses simple people, he simplifies his message."

Mrs. Aloni responded by wishing the rabbi "a very long life so he can enjoy the banquet he wished for."

The other tape in the news here involved Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, a rising star of the Likud bloc that lost power in June's election and the leading candidate to head the party in the next election.

Last month, Mr. Netanyahu showed up breathless at Israel Television and commandeered prime air time to announce that he had had an extramarital affair.

The motive for this proclamation, he said, was a phone call to his wife, Sarah, by someone who said they have a videotape of his illicit liaison. The caller threatened to expose the Likud official unless he dropped out of the race to head the party, Mr. Netanyahu claimed.

Mr. Netanyahu summoned up righteous indignation, calling the alleged blackmail the "worst political crime of the century . . . perhaps in the history of democracy," and demanding a police probe of his opponents in the party.

Viewers were not so moved. Unlike the United States, private affairs of political figures here have traditionally remained private.

The camp of his chief party rival, former Foreign Minister David Levy -- implicitly the source of the blackmail -- spluttered hyperbole of its own. His innuendo, they said, "is worse than the alleged crime. It's a political blood libel."

Mr. Netanyahu's performance did invite the tabloids to muck around. They named three or four other women who had the opportunity to co-star in this tape, if it existed.

One of them, ironically a public relations image adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, peered coyly from the front page of the papers. The affair quickly became known as "Bibigate."

The Israeli public, which has an immense tolerance for scandal and corruption by their politicians, predictably showed little outrage for the alleged blackmail, and not much interest in Mr. Netanyahu's affairs.

If anything, there was clucking disapproval of the way Mr. Netanyahu had so brusquely treated his wife. Sarah's reported shock at the telephone call revealing her husband's adultery was said to be compounded when he rushed onto national television the next day to tell all.

Skepticism about the whole matter seemed justified last week when leaks from the police investigation suggested there was no tape at all. The story was invented, according to the leaked reports, by a young political worker who wanted to impress Mr. Netanyahu.

The public ruled the whole thing a fumble.

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