So funny it hurts: Satire in my survival kit for Israeli coalition negotiations

Published in Haaretz

How does one deal with the mind-numbing politics of this country? With the hard-biting, endlessly entertaining satire of ‘State of the Nation,’ a brilliant show on Israel’s Channel 2.

Now that we are finally at the end of the negotiations to form Israel’s next coalition – an alternately mind-numbing and entertaining six-week period when party leaders negotiate in the media through leaks, trial balloons, fantasy scenarios and character assassination, while the real poker game takes place in secret – it is good to remember how we maintained our psychological balance during the election campaign itself.

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The key to my sanity was watching Reshet’s “State of the Nation” on Channel 2, the best political satire on Israeli television today. The show is all talk; four comics taking off on politics. The humor is very Israeli, self-mocking, cynical to the point of cruelty, fast moving and frequently hilarious.

Host Lior Shlein teams up with Orna Banai, one of the funniest women in Israel and the former star of Israel’s other leading political satire show, “Eretz Nehaderet” (A Wonderful Country). They are joined by Einav Galili and the genius of the show, Guri Alfi, a cross between Robin Williams and Jon Stewart. With two men and two women, two Mizrachim – Jews of Middle Eastern descent – (Banai and Alfi) and two Ashkenazim – Jews of Eastern European descent – (Shlein and Galili), it’s comic diversity in action.

The leader of every major political party was invited to appear on the show in the months leading up to the January elections for a mini-roast. Right-wingers definitely got more of a grilling, but no one got a free ride.

Labor party head Shelly Yacimovich, who tried to deliver her campaign pitch, was asked to explain why between herself, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, she was the most deserving to lose to Netanyahu. Aryeh Eldad, head of the extreme right-wing National Union party, was reminded that his father had fought to expel the British from Palestine, and was asked if he felt he was closing the circle since the actions of his group were likely to get us all kicked out of Israel. “The third intifada is coming,” Alfi added, “Are you getting excited?” Naftali Bennett, high-tech millionaire and the head of the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi party, was introduced as “the man whom mezuzahs reach up to kiss, and whose white donkey is blocking the parking lot.”

Bennett was then asked how someone who knew when to exit his company to the tune of $150 million doesn’t understand the need to exit the settlements in time.

There’s a framework; the panelists answer a preselected question or fill in the blank, so some lines are scripted. But they almost immediately go off into improvisation and sometimes off the rails.

When Bennett mentioned his poetic side and the anthem he had written for his army unit, Alfi insisted that he had written the theme song for Bennett’s national religious party, which was then played over the studio speakers: “We are men, and we love God, and each other, with no mizrachim, Arabs or gays on our list. But it’s fun here, like ‘Sex in the City,’ except without women or sex, and in Givat Shmuel. Who’s coming to themikveh?” Bennett immediately invited Alfi, who is mizrachi, to join Habayit Hayehudi.

Rather than take issue with the taunts of the leftist panel, Eldad, who is a physician, cleverly decided to mock himself. Eldad admitted that the Hippocratic Oath bound him to treat “even Arab terrorists and other Arabs who didn’t have time to commit any acts of terror yet that day.” Eldad got the panel laughing but also wondering out loud how someone so intelligent could possibly hold his views.

The two big no-shows were Lapid and Netanyahu. In lieu of Lapid, the panel interviewed a teleprompter, which they said is where Lapid gets all his answers from, and in the final pre-election program, they interviewed Netanyahu’s campaign billboard, cutting after each question to the omnipresent stare that had been watching over Israelis from street corners throughout the country.

Alfi summed up Netanyahu’s four years in power, highlighting the fence the government built on the Sinai border in record time to keep out African refugees.
“Let’s be honest,” Alfi started, before delivering his harangue in a single breath. “During your term in office the Carmel Forest burned down, prices rose, the deficit reached record levels, the United States hates us, Hamas got stronger and we had the largest demonstrations in our history, newspapers collapsed, there’s a Palestinian state, the Iranians are building a bomb. We would have run away but you built a fence around us.” Alfi paused to re-establish eye contact with the billboard Bibi. “Do you understand that your single accomplishment screwed us?”

As I said, cynical, with no prevarication.

It’s worth improving one’s Hebrew to follow the jokes. Now that we finally have a government, it would be fun to hear what the State of the Nation team will have to say about it. But for that, we’ll have to wait until Season Five later this year.

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