Jewish Journal

We, the Pickles

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations on Sept. 19. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most memorable phrase of the past week — the phrase for which his speech at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset will be remembered — is untranslatable.

Yes, you can call it the “pickles speech,” but this makes no sense. In Hebrew, “pickles” is “chamutzim.” In Hebrew, “chamutzim” is also “sourpuss.” So, the “pickles speech” (in Hebrew, “Ne’um HaChamutzim”) is truly the “sourness speech.”

Netanyahu mocked his rivals by calling them “pickles,” as he blamed them for being irreparably sour and dissatisfied. “You are constantly grousing,” Netanyahu said about them, “attacking and nitpicking. … You deal with nonsense, but you know deep down that in democratic elections, we will win.”

Yet the chief pickle of the day was not the usual opposition leader or some party hack. It was Israel’s president, a Likud Party veteran, Reuven Rivlin. Without mentioning Netanyahu or his party by name, Rivlin harshly criticized the attitude of the ruling majority and its tendency to treat all criticism as politically motivated and hence illegitimate. “The media is political, the democratic institutions — everything from the [civil service] professionals to the state comptroller — political,” Rivlin said. “The Supreme Court is political, the security forces are political. And is even the IDF, our Israel Defense Forces, political? The entire country and its institutions are filled with politics.”

The debate between these two leaders was as profound as it was personal.

The debate between these two leaders was as profound as it was personal. They clearly dislike each other, but that’s beside the point. What they say is what’s important, and what they say it what’s disturbing.

Rivlin, rightly, feels that his party and former friends lost their way, and lost their sense of stately responsibility. He did not say this in such words, but what he meant was: You all have become party hacks, no longer caring for the country and its people, only caring for maintaining your government.

Netanyahu, rightly, feels that no matter what he does, his critics grumble. If the economy is doing well, he does not get credit. If Israel is strong, he does not get credit. If terrorism is contained, war is avoided, relations with the United States are solid and Israel’s position in the world improves, he does not get credit.

Both of these leaders lost their trust in the good faith of important institutions — a disease of our time (see this week’s number on the right side of the page). Rivlin, for example, does not believe that the government is acting in good faith to better Israel when it attempts to rein in the Supreme Court’s activists. Netanyahu does not believe that police are acting in good faith to better Israel when they investigate his deeds and misdeeds.

This is a disturbing sentiment, because trust is all a government has in a democratic society. Without the general trust of the public, it cannot properly function. If citizens do not trust the police, they will not complain, nor tell it the truth. If citizens do not trust the courts, they will not accept their verdicts. If citizens do not trust the government, they will search for ways to circumvent the government — to change the rules or ignore them.

Lack of trust is a dangerous disease because it is very hard to heal. Netanyahu is unlikely to heal it, because of his belief that every attempt to mend the differences will be a sign of weakness and used against him. Rivlin is unlikely to heal it because the minute he steps into this minefield, he becomes a suspect in the eyes of those who see conspiracies and enemies around them. The opposition is unlikely to heal it, because it has political motivations that it rarely resists — namely, when opportunity to politicize an issue presents itself, the opposition usually jumps on it and thus reveals its un-stately motivations.

Maybe the next leader, after Netanyahu, can do something to mend this sense of mistrust. Maybe, but Netanyahu is not going away without a fight. Why would he, when all he sees around him are blunt attempts to dethrone him by means other than winning an election — investigations, insinuations, allegations, exaggerations and the pickiness of pickles? n


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.