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Can Israel's culture minister provoke her way to the top?

Culture Minister Miri Regev has perfected a strategy of deliberately outraging Israeli audiences to boost her standing within her party.
Israel's Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Pool - RTX1HFQD

Under the headline “War Movie,” Yedioth Ahronoth on Sept. 25 offered its readers no less than eight editorials in response to Culture Minister Miri Regev’s commotion du jour. This time it occurred at the Sept. 23 Ophir Awards, often called the “Israeli Oscars.” For the sake of balance, half the editorials praised Regev, who walked out of the film awards ceremony when a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was performed. The rest of the respondents focused on Regev’s populism, hypocrisy and divisiveness and the misinformation she employed.

Obviously, Yedioth Ahronoth wasn’t the only newspaper to cover the uproar in a manner typically reserved for shocking major events, although it was just another provocation. In fact, it was nothing more than yet another drop in a steady stream of invective, in which Regev stands alone against the elites, the left, Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin), Arabs and, of course, the media.

It was impossible for anyone who turned on the television Friday evening to avoid Regev. The various networks constantly rebroadcast images of her storming out of the hall while Israeli Arab rapper Tamer Nafar performed Darwish’s “Identity Card.’’ As if that were not enough to bring the media drama to a crescendo, Regev called a press conference the next day, right before the Sabbath, to accuse artists of thuggery. That event also received extensive coverage. In addition, Channels 2 and 10 aired interviews with Regev, who added nothing to the debate. All she did was repeat her time-worn mantra that she will not be silenced, compared the performance of Darwish’s poem to “spitting in the face of the Israeli audience” and added that she did not reach her position just so she could “wander around, a glass of wine in hand, at the primaries.” On Channel 10 news, she went on to explain, “I arrived [at my position] to introduce policies that would reduce social divisions and to promote social justice, cultural justice and cultural institutions.”

That wasn’t the end of the Regev festival. All of Saturday night’s current events shows focused on Regev’s response. The party continued well into Sunday morning. All the while, social media was seething. Regev stood at the center of the uproar, even overshadowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, his meeting with President Barack Obama, his address to the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting and interviews he gave to the Israeli press from New York. To Regev’s credit, it must be said that she knows how to steal the spotlight, even from Netanyahu, the master of mass communication.

After analyzing what happened at the Ophir Awards and other similar events, the inevitable conclusion is that Regev has had a consistent strategy since assuming the position of culture minister. As far as she is concerned, it always works. She did the same thing, for example, at the Theater Awards (June 2015) and again at the Cultural Conferences, sponsored by Haaretz, with her “Cut the Bullshit” speech (March 2016). At each event, she stood fearless and tall before an audience, which seemed like it was meant to serve as the backdrop for her defiant and incessant traveling circus.

Feeling under attack on its home field, Regev’s opinionated audience tends not to practice restraint. It fires right back in an insulting manner, booing, hissing and calling her names. On the other hand, it seems as if that is exactly what Regev wants. Within minutes, each commotion is translated into blaring headlines, evoking responses and editorials completely disproportionate to the event’s importance, including countless songs of praise for Regev on WhatsApp groups dominated by Likud supporters. It turns out that Regev has cracked the coveted formula for ensuring that she is the media phenomenon at every event she attends. She knows how to ignite fires, push disagreement to the extreme and pick at Israeli society’s wounds until they reopen.

In the case of the Ophir Awards, the human backdrop played right into her hands, far beyond her wildest dreams. The decision to perform Darwish’s “Identity Card’’ — which ends, “The usurper's flesh will be my food. Beware … / Beware … / Of my hunger / And my anger” — made Regev’s reaction the “proper response” among wide swathes of the public. This is especially true of Likud voters, who are of particular interest to Regev, who hopes that in the next round of internal party elections, they will rank her first on the party’s Knesset list, enabling her to demand the defense or maybe even the foreign affairs portfolio.

It would be one thing if Regev had a comprehensive worldview driven by real substance, but she is just an ambitious and cynical politician who knew how to choose the right party for herself and to convey a message to Likud voters with a wink, by adopting an aggressive agenda against Arabs. Taking a closer look at what Regev does apart from the political and media commotion she instigates to pollute the public atmosphere, the inevitable conclusion is that she doesn’t do much.

What would have happened if the audience that jeered Regev at the Ophir Awards had instead ignored her provocation? To whom would she have shouted back feverishly that no one can silence her? Ignoring Regev would completely neutralize her political strategy for dealing with the media. Instead, her critics and the media collaborate with her indirectly, allowing her to fire off even more extreme comments and remarks.

In the case of the Ophir Awards, the overall impression is that Regev arrived with the intention of causing an uproar, with or without Darwish. She came with a speech intended to provoke the artists in attendance by speaking about how Israeli cinema “will no longer be an exclusive club of any elite.” The fact is that Israeli cinema offers an inspiring reflection of Israeli multiculturalism, and it did so long before Regev dropped in to establish order. For example, this year’s prize for Best Film went to "Sandstorm," which tells the story of two Bedouin women. Despite that, Regev presents a populist agenda, reminiscent of her campaign against alleged ethnic discrimination against Mizrahi Jews and her assault on theater in the Arab sector by cutting funding.

A senior culture correspondent who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said that, time and again, she is forced to cover Regev’s scandals, although she knows they are not spontaneous, but planned in advance, like at the Ophir Awards ceremony. “It is clear to me that she uses us,’’ the correspondent said. “I wish I could avoid that. But with my colleagues offering her a media stage and the whole country talking about it, I cannot ignore it. I am sure that if all of us culture correspondents would unite in ignoring her provocations, they would disappear.’’

Regev ended the week with an enormous victory, at least as far as she is concerned. In a clip she posted on her Facebook page, she thanked her Likud supporters, telling them, “You give me the strength to continue working on behalf of Israeli society, the Jewish people and the Torah of Israel.” One has to hear it twice just to believe it. From the perspective of the woman responsible for societal rifts and divisions, Israeli society begins and ends with the Likud Central Committee.

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